Many local northern students at Durham University have reported being bullied and ridiculed over their accents and backgrounds by other students and even staff. This bullying is part of a long pattern of issues at the university, which is well-known for its culture of privately educated and well-off students. It’s extremely telling of Britain’s class divisions and long-term regional decline when rich students from the south dominate, while local students are ostracised.
In September, Durham drew attention to itself when a student’s place was withdrawn after a series of “utterly abhorrent” comments on social media, involving wealthy prospective freshers in a “Posh Lad” WhatsApp group competing to have sex with the poorest girl they could find.
The Durham Student’s Union also recently barred the Durham University Conservative Association and the Durham University Free Market Association due to “fascist, racist, antisemitic and misogynistic” comments from the leadership of the two societies. While the university took action in these specific cases, it certainly hasn’t solved the root cause of the vile culture and class divisions that are created by capitalism.
A report was compiled in September 2020 by a Durham University student, detailing a number of interviews with northern students who described a deeply toxic culture at the university. The author herself, who is from County Durham, was inspired to create the report when during her time at the university her accent was mocked, she was described as being feral, and she became the butt of coal mining jokes.
One student, whose experiences were documented in the report, expressed how it became a running joke in her class that she was a token working class student. Another student, when eating in the college dining hall, was asked ’are you going to take the spare food home to feed your family?’; These are clear examples of the class contempt displayed towards working class students at one of the UK’s leading ‘elite’ universities.
Where do such attitudes come from? At their root, they are a product of the capitalist system. When education is run as a business, the working class will always suffer. From the earliest stages of education, wealth inequality creates lasting imbalances: rich students are able to attend well-funded private schools, access tutors, and live in comfortable environments that make it easy to achieve top grades. Poorer students must attend underfunded state schools, depriving them of the advantages afforded to their wealthy peers.
A 2019 report by the SMC found 34% of children to be living in poverty; when families can’t even afford to take care of their children’s basic needs, naturally their education will suffer. The marketisation of education means that students are consumers having to pay high tuition fees, while fat cat vice chancellors are paid huge salaries – not that this is of any concern to the rich though.
When you consider the regional wealth inequalities across the country, it’s little surprise that northerners are under-represented at top universities. Disadvantaged students simply aren’t afforded the opportunity to achieve the necessary grades. This creates a vicious cycle, as poor students – and in particular, working class northern students – are dismissed as dumb by their privileged peers. Hence, those that do manage to make it into a top university might just get bullied right back out, as was the case for some students in the report.
The truth is that this is not a North, South divide but a divide between those who have been brought up believing that poverty comes through laziness or lack of interest in education, and those who have faced the pressures of capitalism throughout their childhood. Namely, this is a class divide.
The animosity between people who grow up in County Durham and the students at the University is well known and expands into the psyche of those living in the region. A University which is orientated towards some of the most well off students surrounded by a region which is rife with unemployment and poverty leads directly to this divide.
Schemes exist to widen access to higher education, such as Durham’s Supported Progression scheme, which offers support to disadvantaged applicants. Attempts to patch-up such inequalities don’t cut it though; we seek to address the root cause of these imbalances – capitalism. To end this unjust inequality, we not only need to end the marketisation of education, but the system of wealth disparity that creates issues at the earliest stages of education. Only through the elimination of class can we stop class discrimination – and only through socialism can we achieve education that is freely accessible to all.
By Eleanor Wetton and James Baird