Credit Lisa Paul

The elephant in the seminar room

By Niamh Flanagan

Much has changed at the University since its inception, but elitism and exclusivity persist.

When the University of Glasgow was founded in 1451, its student population was exclusively male and white, usually the sons of ministers and nobility, and up until the eighteenth century, student numbers remained under 400. Students wore scarlet gowns, carried bibles around campus with them and conversed exclusively in Latin. It wasn’t until 1837 that the University had its first non-white graduate in James McCune Smith, and it would be another half century before women were permitted through its hallowed halls in 1892. Fast forward a few hundred years, and undoubtedly, our student population is more diverse with regards to its gender, class, and ethnic demographic composition than ever before.

The most recent available data on the balance of comprehensively versus privately educated students at the University indicates that 16.2% of the student population here are former private school students – a figure that still stands at more than double the 7% of the UK population that is privately educated, and places Glasgow in the top 20 Russell Group universities with the highest admission of privately educated students nationwide. A study undertaken in 2018 showed Glasgow to be the 7th least ethnically diverse Russell Group university, with 87% of students being white.

Whilst I’m not suggesting that I’m best placed to discuss experiences of identity-based marginalisation at the University, I do feel as I enter my fifth year of study here that I have felt the echoes of an institution founded and built by and for men of a very particular class that successive diversity and inclusion campaigns have failed to expel. Imposter syndrome was a concept that had never held much meaning to me until I began my first year of university, where I would sit mutely in seminars, paralysed by a self-consciousness that had me second guessing every potential response to a prompt by the seminar leader, swallowing down my thoughts as classmates reeled off analyses and insights with an assurance that was entirely foreign to me.

My performance in assignments was always strong, regularly receiving positive feedback from staff – so why was it that I felt so unqualified to contribute any of my thoughts in seminars? As time went on, I began to notice that the loudest, most ardent participants of most of my smaller group classes (I took a joint honours History and Politics degree, incidentally) were usually men, usually white, and more often than not spoke with accents that betrayed their paid-for educations. I’ll concede that I didn’t conduct survey-like research on the educational backgrounds of my peers, so such an assertion isn’t cast-iron, but the Instagram feeds featuring extensive evidence of ski-holidays and luxurious gap years abroad seemed to justify my suspicions.

I don’t think it was ever a genuine lack of belief in my own academic ability that caused me to experience imposter syndrome upon first arriving at the University, but more a culture shock that this transition in my life and educational career triggered. Coming from a comprehensive school in Hull, the learning environment of the University was a world apart from anything that I had before experienced. The big, noisy, colourful classes of my secondary school had ill prepared me for the austere, almost regal settings of the University – lectures in Hunter Halls and seminars in University Gardens, traipsing through the labyrinthine buildings to sit around ornate tables with eighteen-year-old boys wearing suits for a 10am class. In both settings I had struggled to be heard, but in secondary school it was over the cacophony of thirty other rowdy pupils whispering and giggling and shouting out – at university it was over the deafening silence of the other eight of us in a seminar group as two or three students monologued endlessly, often interrupting each other and the seminar leader, unshakable in their determination to take up space and be heard. And why wouldn’t privately educated students feel more at ease upon entering such an environment – for them it is a continuation of the style of learning they have become accustomed to, with smaller class sizes and grandiose buildings both being hallmarks of private education in the UK. Going to a historic university like Glasgow, and everything that comes with that, is entirely adherent to private educational experiences – where students are taught to believe that higher education is an arena to which they inalienably belong.

For people such as myself, the transition produced an initial sense of dislocation that I had to work hard to counteract. The barriers to access and inclusivity that were once overt are now far more insidious; sitting in those seminar rooms as a first year four years ago, I could never quite put my finger on why I felt so out of place. Gradually, I began to recognise my misplaced insecurities for what they were, and as I embark on my master’s degree, I’d like to think I’ve become significantly more assured of my academic competency.

For me, the sense of exclusion that I can recall wasn’t harmful in any material way – just part and parcel of the journey of self-actualisation you go on as a young person navigating the big wide world beyond your hometown. It was uncomfortable but also affirming to overcome the imposter syndrome that characterised so many seminars in those first few months here at Glasgow. That in itself is an indication of my own privilege, of the influences that accommodate me and my experience of higher education at the expense of excluding others. For some, the impact of enduring systematic discrimination at the University of Glasgow has been far more tangible and undeniably harmful than my own.  An independent review into racism at the University in 2021 found that half of non-white students had experienced racial harassment at the University and victims of such harassment, including staff members, had more often than not gone without reporting such incidents for fear it would not be taken seriously. The damning findings of the report laid bare some painful realities about cultures of exclusion at the University, which in the 21st century are clearly alive and well despite the constant assurances that UofG is a welcoming, diverse and inclusive place to study. 

Universities are generators of knowledge, leaders in socio-cultural trends and attitudes. The environments that are fostered and cultivated here should reflect the values of a modern, progressive and inclusive society. There must be equality of access and experience in our seminar rooms and beyond, and clearly there is work still to be done.


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