Oxbridge schemes to 'help' working-class students adapt to university life are patronising and regressive

In order for universities to become attractive places for working-class people who might not see the benefit, institutions need to truly engage with our actual realities and connected needs

Tom Rasmussen
Monday 04 September 2017 17:29
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Oxford University seems to think its working-class students are most worried about what to wear to events
Oxford University seems to think its working-class students are most worried about what to wear to events

Bravo Oxford University. Last week the Student’s Union announced their new ‘Class Act’ scheme – where two working-class students will be buddied up, allowing them a space to explore their anxieties such as “black tie and subfusc” on entering such an excruciatingly elitist environment. Well fusc that.

I’m a Cambridge graduate, whose place at Queens’ College was certainly aided by the box my attendance at a state-comp and my low income household would allow the admissions office to tick. As a working-class thorn, among legions of Etonian roses, my years at university were some of the most formative – and most dishonest — of my life. Surprising, even for myself, because I was outrageously queer and unapologetically loud throughout my time at university; but when it came to class I learned very quickly how to paint a flawless middle class mask just to be taken even semi-seriously.

I was unknowingly desperate to be seen as worthy, cultured, interesting, engaged — something these incredibly impressive people would never see in my background. Lest we forget, this is the place where some abhorrent hooligan torched a £20 note in front of a homeless person and was allowed re-entry to his studies after writing a letter of apology.

People say that university is all about “life lessons”, but for working-class people those lessons are oftentimes forced upon us. A Cambridge classmate of mine told me that in her first week an Etonian on her corridor assumed she was a maid, and tried to hand her his dirty sheets. It was the first time she'd ever really thought about class: forced to by someone else.

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It sounds unfathomable that someone might have such little social awareness, but as a working-class kid heading to university you quickly feel the sting of people patronising you, erasing you, or fetishising you. These small campuses and extra-curricular societies bloom into a microcosm of the adult world, where you feel your class like you never felt it back home because everybody was like you.

Does Oxford really think that the students their institution is designed to erase spend most of their time worrying about what to wear to yet another meaningless black-tie dinner? Of course these alien details can act as major stressors for working-class students, but the assumption that these might be the apogee of our anxieties only reinforces the cluelessness and privilege from which schemes like this are set up.

Shoving all the working-class kids in a room allows those who comfortably move among the middle classes and beyond to disengage with, and erase, the realities of life for so many working class people attending university. It suggests that the working class has no culture worth learning about, yet we should all be desperately contorting our identities and histories to become palatable to the middle class among us. It absolves the guilt of those who so quietly reinforce class differences by locking away and erasing our realities: realities for myself and many like me which feature a lot of struggle, anxiety, isolation, poverty and demonization, but also humour, love, hard work, friendliness and community, and many more realities worth listening to, and learning about.

Don’t get me wrong, in terms of jobs, learning to “act middle class” was definitely the most financially valuable thing I learned at Cambridge – even writing this I use vocabulary unheard at home or at school, and studies show that employers choose those who are well travelled, well-connected, articulate and well-mannered over those who are more qualified to do the job at hand.

Don’t shove us away together – engage with us. In order for universities to become attractive places for working-class people who might not see the benefit of attending them, institutions need to truly engage with our actual realities and connected needs: proper financial aid which continues through holidays and breaks; helpful forums where our needs are genuinely engaged with and funding to set these up ourselves; school and college outreach that actually makes sense; a platform upon which to be heard, and not shamed, in matters of class and experience; sponsorship that doesn't require us to praise at the altar of Mr. Dreadful White-Alumnus once a term. We need conversations where our background is not treated like an affliction to be cured, but instead celebrated and validated as rich, full and worthy of a seat at a black tie dinner table, or any table for that matter.

Looking back on my time at Cambridge, I wish I’d had the bravery to speak up and out about the realities and differences I experienced growing up. But that, too, takes a lot of energy and self-confidence — something rarely prioritised in a schoolyard where rocks are hurled at you because you’re gay, and a geek, and your parents work to the bone to support a family of six. Instead, the labour must come from others, the ones who don’t have to worry about having the money to make it to the next meal, the ones who spout the Marxist manifesto verbatim and patronise the cashier in the canteen.

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