Why don't working class students feel welcome at Russell Groups?

Senior Culture Editor Charlotte Paige Boulton explores the emergent divide between middle and working class students

Charlotte Boulton
9th February 2020
Only days into arriving at Newcastle as a working-class student, the infamous ‘Poly VS Posh’ t-shirts were out in full force as the classist bar crawl was advertised.

One of my first year flatmates in Castle Leazes flew up from the south on a first class flight for move-in day, when I instantly realised I was from a very different world. Realising that the horrific £99 a week halls with shared bathroom, tiny kitchen and nine flatmates was not actually chosen by most because it was one of the cheapest options, but because it held a particular reputation as the place to be for ‘rahs’ and privately educated freshers who wanted to party and take advantage of the boarding school-esque catering was a revelation.

Honestly, I’d never been so aware of my class and social status until I came to Newcastle. So, are Russell Group universities like Newcastle – and their students, 25% of which come from private schools – really welcoming places for working class students?

Apart from student finance, which is definitely a flawed system for some despite its well-meaning ideals, the university offers Opportunity Scholarships for disadvantaged students

Institutionally, Newcastle is pretty good at providing financial support for lower-income students. Apart from student finance, which is definitely a flawed system for some despite its well-meaning ideals, the university itself offers Opportunity Scholarships for many disadvantaged students. But it’s really hard to know where to turn for non-money related support from the university.

The Russell Group culture of prioritising results can leave students burnt out and struggling to adjust to this new way of working, that often other students have been tutored for or had university-educated parents to talk to about it. I’m still not convinced my family really understand what a university even is.

Going beyond the university itself, the impact of other students is sometimes really detrimental to working-class students. Castle Leazes has 56% of its inhabitants from private schools, according to The Tab; when I saw my flatmates doing their weekly shop at Waitrose and paying absolutely no regard for the disgusting messes they left for the cleaners, I felt very different.

Rah culture at Newcastle does exist, and there’s certain places I would never go out of fear of being instantly clocked as not fitting in by some posh boys who are just getting their degree to please their families before walking into a family business. A lot of the issues in Russell Group universities aren’t intentional, I’m sure, and is just a matter of people being unable to recognise their privilege or not understanding how disorienting about their skiing trips, holiday homes and expensive hobbies can be to someone with no experience of these luxuries.

The whole ‘poly vs posh’ dynamic characterised by the popular Freshers events that pits Northumbria students against Newcastle’s is just another example of how little people realise the implications of this classist polarisation. It’s rooted in expectations of working-class people being less intelligent and therefore unable to get into a university like Newcastle, which is currently 22nd in the Top University Guide league table compared to Northumbria at 50th, creating this entitlement and expectation that all Newcastle students must be more intelligent and middle-class.

Besides league tables and measures of intelligence being bullshit anyway, this view is just gross and dismissive. These feelings set an elitist haze over everything, leaving working-class students at Russell Groups feeling left out, lesser than and out of place in a space that they have just as much right to inhabit as those from better-off backgrounds.

Russell Group as a term is born out of old-fashioned research ideals being seen as a sign of quality

I believe this can improve as people become more aware of the implications of what they say and do that upholds classist ideas, and start to recognise how fortunate they are to be able to ask parents for money, access internships through family friends and be able to consider postgraduate study without the very real fear of not having enough money to pay tuition and live. Russell Group as a term is born out of old-fashioned research ideals being seen as a sign of quality; at the end of the day, why does Newcastle being a research-intensive university make it any better than Northumbria or other non-Russell Group institutions?

Working-class students have to find solidarity with each other and fight against the classism deeply entrenched in our universities and the long-standing tradition of education only being for the elite. University should be accessible to everyone, but that access isn’t just about getting into university, it is about feeling comfortable, supported and able to take advantage of the opportunities available just as much as everyone else.

Featured Image: Pixabay

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