I’m northern and working class – I was made to feel unwelcome at Cambridge

Professors, teachers and lecturers were shocked by my accent, my mode of speaking and reasoning, with one Director of Studies once asking me if ‘Cambridge was really the right place for someone like me’

Tom Rasmussen
Friday 20 October 2017 13:04 BST
Only one in four colleges across Cambridge made offers to black applicants
Only one in four colleges across Cambridge made offers to black applicants

Today Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, published the findings of a recent Freedom of Information request which looked to profile the diversity – in terms of ethnicity and socioeconomic background – of students who received a place at Oxbridge in the last seven years.

And, not surprising to many, the results are bleak. The statistics show that more offers were made to Etonians than to kids on free school meals across the whole country. 82 per cent of placeholders in 2015 came from the top two social classes, and only one in four colleges across Cambridge made offers to black applicants, each time offering a meagre one or two places.

Another finding, perhaps surprising to many, shows that more offers were made to applicants from just five home counties than to applicants from the whole of the North of England. Between 2010 and 2015, Cambridge made more offers to applicants from Oxfordshire, than to applicants from Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester combined. And while both universities report an increase in admissions from state schools across the country, the figure fluctuating between 55 and 60 per cent since 2005, it’s deeply unimpressive when a mere 7 per cent of the population is privately educated.

The bias in favour of the country’s social, educational and financial elite is shockingly unbalanced and irresponsible, especially when Oxbridge alone receives £800m a year of taxpayer money. But it’s not shocking to northern, working-class or BAME students. This kind of barring from elite institutions is incredibly commonplace, even when the grades and talent are there – and in abundance, I might add.

As a working-class person from Carnforth (a small town right next to Lancaster), I was one of the lucky few who bucked the statistics and advice which told me I’d never get a place, receiving an offer back in 2010 to study Veterinary Medicine at Queen’s College Cambridge – which according to Lammy’s previous report was a marginally better year in terms of diverse acceptances.

It was a dream come true: a “boy-done-good” story which made my parents, and myself, incredibly proud. Against the odds, from one of the town’s roughest schools, I’d got the offer, got the grades, and excitedly purchased a suit from the discount section at Preston Debenhams ready to “go up” – as they call it – to Cambridge.

Before I got there, I didn’t have a clue about the class, race, or the North-South divides that apparently every other educationally or financially privileged kid did, and would spend their time patronisingly explaining to me. I, and the few other students in my year who fell outside of the white, upper-middle class, public-school educated norm, knew how unlikely our attendance at this cripplingly elite university was – and we were constantly reminded of it.

People were proud of the bombastic fact that “they’d never been to the North”, that “anywhere North of Zone 2 is far enough for me”, their comments laced with classist implications that the apparently culturally barren “North” wasn’t worth a visit.

Professors and lecturers were shocked by my accent, my mode of speaking and reasoning, with one Director of Studies once asking me if “Cambridge was really the right place for someone like me”, after I’d got a particularly mediocre 2:1 in a mock exam. In the end, I departed the Vet Med course, graduating in History of Science instead, desperate not to spend another three years in clinical school feeling like a leper because of my working-class background.

There were so many instances, shared by so many like me, of people explaining – and through that, reifying – the class, North-South and race divides. These constant encounters solidified the feeling that nobody really wanted you there, but they had to take you because your presence was helpful for balancing out statistics like those published by Lammy today. I only ever felt tokenistic, like my presence was at worst an administrative error, and at best a box to be ticked.

Class and race divides are entrenched both in the application-acceptance system, and also once you’re through the giant oak doors of whatever college you’re unlikely to get a place at. While graduates of these two towering institutions continue to furnish our courts, banks and parliament, the country’s elite will continue to fail those they are put there to represent, their disconnection from people who fall outside of their social and racial category leading to no real understanding of what a life different to theirs is like.

Lammy suggests that a decentralised application system is required to tip the scales in the Oxbridge application race, instead of leaving it to a tiny few inside the strongholds of these intimidating colleges. I would add that admission positions must be actively given to people from diverse backgrounds: those who can understand the challenges and scepticism people from ethnically diverse backgrounds face in trying to gain access to the elite insides of Oxbridge – a place which is evidently, both from statistics and personal experience, structurally designed to keep us out.

Conservative MP Esther McVey said in PMQs this week: “The North will be heard!” Indeed I hope so, but I also doubt it.

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