What I learned about class and privilege from cleaning my uni mates’ toilets at Oxford

So many of my peers have been shocked by the fact that I have to work to fund my way through my degree; I have been more shocked by the number of them that have never had to work

Lily Webb
Sunday 10 July 2022 13:54 BST
Cambridge University's graduation ceremony is reminiscent of Harry Potter
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The experience of cleaning my uni mates’ toilets during the holidays was one that had me thinking long and hard about two big words: class and privilege.

Don’t get me wrong, as an Oxford student, I know full well the position of privilege that I sit in when discussing this. As a state school kid from Coventry and the first in my family to go to university, however, this privilege, alongside my relationship with class, is often complicated. Working as a cleaner at my college for five weeks only furthered that complication.

For the period that I was working, almost every thought I had about privilege related to my own. I was incredibly lucky to only have to work such a physically demanding job for five weeks, while my colleagues were destined to do it until they retire. I was incredibly lucky to be working to fund my way through a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world, when most of the women I was working with had never had access to an adequate education. I am incredibly lucky to be a native English speaker, living in England, because it means that I will always have access to a greater variety of jobs, even within the minimum wage bracket, than most of the women I was working with.

Luck was not the only thing I felt, though. As my line manager took to addressing instructions to me rather than the full-time cleaner I was paired with – I assume “because my English was better” – I couldn’t help wondering if the same would take place in a law firm or investment bank. I simply cannot imagine managers of more “highbrow” jobs addressing interns over actual employees for such a reason.

It became increasingly clear that though I was half the age of many of these women, and incredibly less qualified for the job we were doing, I was still seen as “superior” to them because of my “intellectual abilities”, and, in a more subconscious and sinister way, because I was English. This quite abruptly laid to rest any doubts I’d ever had about my position within the middle classes, and was an uncomfortable reminder of the deep privileges I possess.

And yet, when my friends returned from the break and, in some cases, luxurious holidays, I was reawakened to the limits surrounding my privilege too. So many of my peers have been shocked by the fact that I have to work to fund my way through my degree; I have been more shocked by the number of them that have never had to work.

Discussions of my holiday jobs have opened my eyes to a portion of the middle classes who believe that academic dedication will always be a priority over work experience, a class of parents who would rather their children wholly give their time over to intellectual pursuit rather than gain experience of the workplace. Though this is something I can understand in theory, in practice, I struggle to grasp the logic of it.

I suspect this is because I’m someone who has reaped the benefits of working various minimum wage jobs since I was 15. In my eyes, there is no way the skills gained and lessons learnt from being employed as a teenager can be overvalued.

When actually cleaning the rooms for those five weeks, it became very obvious in a number of cases that the people whose rooms I was cleaning had never had to clean for themselves. This was, perhaps, the most disturbing part of the job. Not only had many of my peers never done a hard day’s work in their lives, but they didn’t even have to worry about vacuuming their own room or washing their own shower.

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As the job went on, I became increasingly aware of a concerning culture where certain qualities, particularly intellectual ones, seem to place a person above other tasks and duties. This doesn’t just work to reinforce class divisions that we should be trying to tackle, but it also negates the value of work that is absolutely essential.

Considering this, it hardly seems surprising that those who are elected to rule our country seem so deeply out of touch with the majority of the nation. It is not a stretch to conclude that almost all those with power in our government come from that branch of the middle classes that prioritises the intellectual – or the appearance of being intellectual – over the experience of work.

It is not at all shocking, then, to see how underpaid and underappreciated – quite frankly neglected – lower-class workers, like those I cleaned with, are.

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