A Working Class Student is Something to Be?

Oliver Timberlake, writer, reveals his personal experience of being working-class at the University of Portsmouth.

Since the 1980s, there’s been a dominant narrative about how class in Britain no longer really matters. For Margaret Thatcher, class was ‘a communist concept’. John Major prattled on about ‘the classless society’. Their ideological descendant, John Prescott, infamously claimed that ‘we’re all middle class now’. But just because politicians say class isn’t important doesn’t make it so.

I am currently in university education and find it to be, undoubtedly, a middle class pursuit. According to research reported by the BBC, more than half of English universities have roughly less than 5 percent ‘white working class’ students, and applications are decreasing from this demographic while applications to university from black and Asian young people are growing, and women are more likely than men to apply. The BBC report highlights that ‘[w]hen these factors combine, it means that white, working class men become among the most under-represented groups in university.’

A study from the National Education Opportunities Network says not enough universities have clear targets for recruiting ‘white working class’ people, and suggested setting ‘specific targets’ for poorer white students. Furthermore, the Metro reported in 2017 that over eight percent of working class students drop out during their first year, often citing the cost of university life.

At least in my experience, poor students are still suffering with worse job prospects than their middle class peers. Most of my friends from back home who didn’t go to, or get into, university have ended up working in ‘low-skilled’, low paid jobs in retail or hospitality; one of my friends joined the army. Sometimes it seems as though the prospects for working class kids after leaving school are limited to being trapped working for a multinational corporation or fighting for the interests of said multinational corporations. Ruth Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, slammed the state of ‘gutted’ communities and the lack of post-16 opportunities,  asking ‘is the route for social advancement a degree, student debt, moving to London to spend more than half their pay on a room in a shared flat, and half of what’s left commuting to their stagnant-wage job every day?’

As a second year, working class student at the University of Portsmouth, statistics on working class participation in higher education did little to encourage me. I spent much of my first term wondering why I bothered putting in all that work over my A-levels, moving halfway across the country, racking up debt in fees and loans, just to drop out in the first year and end up back home? Why spend three years struggling with money and workload just to come out the other end with lower prospects than my middle class peers? Research from the London School of Economics in 2019 found that a working class graduate with a first class degree is still less likely to achieve an elite job than a middle class graduate with a 2:2. This weighed heavily on my mind while applying, and in the first few weeks of my first term. At one point I messaged my Dad to tell him I was thinking about dropping out. Places like this aren’t for people like me, I felt. Luckily, I stuck with it and here I am, almost halfway through my second year, though it’s sobering to think about how close I was to giving up.

But it’s not the structural inequalities blocking the path to an undergraduate degree for working class young people such as me. With so many middle class students dominating university culture, poorer students can easily absorb the feeling that being middle or upper class is simply better than being working class. Young people today are commonly described as entitled and, while I’m often the first to defend ‘Millennials’, I’ve also found some truth to this claim among my wealthy student peers.

A few weeks into my second term, one of my flatmates complained about how poor she was. Despite us only just having received our maintenance loans for that teaching block, I sympathised with her; money trouble is something pretty much all students experience, regardless of socio-economic status. A few days later, my flatmate announced her mother had just sent her four hundred pounds out of the blue.

The penny dropped for me.

I realised that when my wealthy peers complained about ‘being poor’, what they actually meant was ‘I don’t have an abundance of available money for the first time in my life’. Most of the students around me grew up pretty comfy, learned how to drive at seventeen, were bought a car for their eighteenth by their parents, and have a permanent account open at the Bank of Mum and Dad. While these students often claim, and even believe, themselves to be poor, they will always have the safety net of their parents. They don’t understand what it’s really like to be financially independent at eighteen: My mother couldn’t send me forty quid, let alone four hundred (not that I mind that, love you Mum).

If it sounds like I’m angry or jealous, it’s because I am. I have long since accepted that my upbringing wasn’t as smooth as some people’s, but it was also smoother than other’s. I’m not claiming I worked down the mines as a child, was a Dickensian pickpocket, or lived in the Global South. But I did live in council housing, my parents did struggle heavily with money even with the aid of benefits and, later, even more with the ‘help’ of pay day lenders. And I know these experiences have a direct correlation with the feeling of being unwelcome at university: this is classism. As most students are middle class, there is deep ignorance about working class life. The identities and cultures of working class people are concurrently imitated and mocked. Middle class students wear clothes inspired by punk or greaser subcultures while complaining about having to drive home to their four-bedroom house for Christmas.

‘Chav’ or ‘urban’ themed nights are held for students at local clubs by businesses, or university societies themselves. In 2017, a ‘nerds and neds’ (the latter being Scottish slang for the uneducated or delinquents) pub crawl was held by students at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Bristol Cheerleading Society received criticism after announcing a ‘chav-themed social’. In 2018, a similar event held by the University of Leeds hockey club was investigated by the students’ union.

In Portsmouth in 2019 a Tracksuit Party was held by the Mr Miyagi’s nightclub. I was curious whether the organisers of the event were aware of the connotation, so I emailed them to see whether it was an intended reference. After a few days I received an automated email that the address was no longer functioning, so I searched for any other means of communication. It turns out the only way to contact the nightclub was via Facebook. I sent the same message again and eagerly awaited a response from Mr Miyagi’s. The reply I received was short and simply told me that ‘many people wear tracksuits in all walks of life, we think you’re reading too much into this’. While this is true, and it may also be true that the event’s similarities to harmful working class imagery were a coincidence, the association between tracksuits and the working classes is well known, for example, leading a Telegraph commentator in 2016 to associate such sportswear with ‘red-faced blokes in the pub…slummy mummies smoking fags in velour tracksuits at the school gates’.

It seems bizarre to me that the middle classes who overwhelmingly voted for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party in the 2017 general election could hold such anti-working class sentiment. On nights out, I’ve been called a ‘chav’; one of my flatmates last year said I was a ‘Poundland Danny Dyer’ (which I did admittedly find funny with the best part of a bottle of Vodka in me). I’ve heard students complain about ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘the locals’ in a way which feels more like a conference for the Daily Mail or the Tory party than a university campus. Yet the blame cannot solely be placed at the feet of the students themselves. It’s telling that, in a period of such intense austerity as this, in a city with as high numbers of homelessness and child poverty as Portsmouth, the university has invested in multimillion pound refurbishments and redevelopments since 2014.

We’re all middle class now, indeed.


This article was updated on 29th February 2020 with thanks to one of our readers to correct that it was John Prescott who said ‘We’re all middle class now’, not Tony Blair, as originally stated.

Image by nikolayhg from Pixabay.

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