In 2014, government advisor, Peter Brant, suggested that prospective university students from working-class backgrounds should “learn” to be middle-class, through engaging with activities such as watching plays, in order to have “shared cultural experiences” with the middle-class students currently dominating the UK’s top universities. Most strikingly, Brant genuinely believes this will help working-class students “fit in” with their wealthier peers. Indeed, much of the debate surrounding rectifying the class divisions prevalent at university focuses overwhelmingly on reorienting working-class students to feel comfortable with the elitist environment of many universities, with few people stopping to question why the default climate of many universities is one of hostility towards working-class students.
Despite many of us at Glasgow University taking pride in attending a notably more diverse and arguably less snobbish university than our academic counterparts (I’m looking at you, Edinburgh and St Andrews), we are still far from eradicating the issues and divisions that arise from wealth inequality and class differences between students. These divisions are of course exacerbated (if not directly caused) by the financial burden of university. While I applaud Scotland for abolishing tuition fees, this is obviously caveated by only applying to Scottish students, thus the weight of the ever-increasing debt caused by tuition fees is still very much felt by other UK and non-EU students, and will likely linger for decades after we graduate.
Regardless, even Scottish students have suffered under the previous Conservative government’s decision to scrap maintenance grants for students whose families are unable to support them financially, leaving the (often exponential, especially in the West End) cost of living entirely down to the responsibility of the student – whether that be in the form of maintenance loans, or being forced to take up part-time work, often to the detriment of their grades. Undeniably, accommodation costs are a significant factor in the increasing unaffordability of university for working-class students; at Glasgow alone, there is a whopping £3,226 difference between the most and least expensive university accommodation, and this is clearly reflected in the quality of their living standards. Those on a tighter budget must often share a bedroom, and even those staying in the cheapest single bedrooms at Murano frequently find themselves sharing a cramped flat with twelve other people, as opposed to the more expensive residences such as Kelvinhaugh Gate, where flat sizes accommodate as few as three people. The impact of living in a hectic environment and lacking privacy is proven to detriment academic performance and mental health in the long-run.
Living standards aside, it seems self-evident that such a dramatic contrast in rent between different residences can only hinder social integration and cause both the most and least wealthy students to concentrate in separate halls, as well as creating divisions of its own through stigmatising cheaper accommodation like Murano, and creating the view that more expensive residences are somehow superior. Even those local to Glasgow who opt to save money by living at home are often unable to engage in the many social events and clubs that go on later into the night, and are also often ineligible for bursaries from the University, due to the (often downright false) assumption their parents can support them.
In addition, many of the social and cultural aspects of university can also be alienating for working-class students. For example, ball tickets can easily cost a student £60 – £70 (and that doesn’t even factor in the cost of buying a suit or dress and all the other amenities necessary for a good night out). Even inexpensive social activities often fail to be fully inclusive of less-privileged students, while some other notable social events at our uni, like the Glasgow University Ski Trip, have extravagant costs nearer to £400. Non-sporting pursuits, such as debating teams and sports, like hockey or lacrosse, largely attract privately-educated students who are already familiar with these activities – unlike those of us who were state-educated and consequently spent all our school years playing rounders with an old tennis ball, and two people having a scrap in the playground being the closest most of us have come to a parliamentary debate – but I digress. Arguably, the phenomenon of the infamous “Glasgow Uni accent” – a slightly posh and homogenised accent often put-on by Glasgow University students – really encapsulates the worst aspects of the social and cultural elements of university life, which far too often pressures students into feigning a degree of privilege or a lifestyle they do not have in order to “fit in”.
So, who is responsible for solving the divisions caused by social and financial inequality at university? Students certainly have a role to play, as too many of us are guilty of a pack-mentality, failing to fully integrate with others due to an unwillingness to understand or empathise with people of a different social background than our own. However, the universities themselves have a bigger responsibility; too many universities protect the pageantry and social elitism present within their institutions in the name of upholding tradition. It goes without saying that until we rid ourselves of the idea that elitism and superiority are an integral part of the culture of any successful university, we will continue to see divisions at universities drawn along class lines.