Does Oxford create a class of its own?

Eimer McAuley discusses class at Oxford and debunks the myth that we are all the same when we graduate

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When I first came to Oxford, I was introduced to the idea that the University is like a sausage maker. No matter what class you belonged to when you arrived at Oxford, you become part of the Oxford class when you leave and re-enter the world. Although this is reassuring in terms of employment prospects for working-class students, for me it raised anxieties about how my background forms a part of my identity during my time here.

I was told, in no uncertain terms, that everyone knows which fork to use for what by the time they graduate. My reaction was immediately defensive. I already knew about place settings–I’ve waitressed for three years. At the peak of my imposter syndrome, I was beginning to feel like a walking specimen of Oxford’s ‘look, we do let in non-privately educated students’ outreach mantra, and becoming a sausage wasn’t the most appealing alternative.

When I told my friends at school that I was applying to Oxford, the unanimous response was: “But won’t everyone be so posh?” Having spent a year here now, I can say the answer is both yes, and no. Everyone is familiar with the statistics: only 14 per cent of sixth formers attend independent schools yet, from 2012-2014, they made up 38 per cent of Oxford’s intake. However, even when we reduce the issue of social diversity at Oxford to statistics, it’s more complicated than that. One in five of the state school students admitted going to a grammar school, which otherwise only makes up five per cent of the population, and although children on free school meals account for 15 per cent of the population, they make up one per cent of Oxford’s admissions.

Oxford remains socially unequal, elitist, and unrepresentative of the UK’s population. However, these statistics simplify the issue. It means we take private/state school as shorthand for middle/working class or privileged/underprivileged. I’ve found that the reality of class integration and representation at Oxford is more complicated than this polarisation allows. To form a long term solution to access problems, we need to take into account the nuances of ‘privilege’ and what Oxford is really like for working-class students.

No one ever encouraged me to apply to Oxford, there was never a ‘hey, maybe this is for you’ moment. Coming from a working-class village and attending the local grammar school, Oxbridge didn’t factor into societal expectations. Grammar schools effectively replace private schools in Northern Ireland, claiming the top ten places in the region. Despite this, no one from my school in recent history had ever gone to Oxford. When I got in, it felt like a lottery win.

Unsurprisingly, when I arrived in Oxford for fresher’s week, it was a culture shock. People seemed to already know each other, or of each other, and ‘what school did you go to?’ was a go-to conversation starter. Yet, despite this start, my expectations of ‘posh’ private school kids were disproved by the friends I made—they were grounded and friendly regardless of their background. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t felt aware of my background as a part of my identity here. At times, the sense of being in an institution that perpetuates elitism is overwhelming.

It can be alienating when I’m watching student-written drama where students throw on a pair of Adidas superstars and play what seems to be a parody of state-educated students, or when I’m listening to someone— whom I really suspect has never stepped foot on a council estate—talk like an authority about benefits culture.

It’s the same feeling that arises when yet another person asks the dreaded ‘what school did you go to’ while in the Bridge smoking area. I have not felt like I have assimilated in terms of class, or lost my identity to the ‘sausage maker’ that is Oxford. Yet, I have felt like I’m participating in an elitist institution that is so painfully far removed from what I’ve seen of society.

I’m not suggesting that people who received a better education or come from a privileged background can’t get involved in the conversation about class in Oxford, but it’s important to accept the limitations of their privileged perspective. You might know the statistics off by heart, but, if you don’t know the people, it isn’t the same.

Class itself isn’t a black and white issue—it can’t be understood purely by looking at someone’s schooling. Although I’ve never received any kind of private tuition, and spent my childhood in a low-income family, I’ve enjoyed living in financial security since I was an adolescent. In contrast, some students have attended schools with significant fees and have simultaneously dealt with financial stress throughout their schooling.

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Two students I spoke to both experienced having one of their parents declare bankruptcy while they were attending fee-paying schools. One second generation student at Oxford said: “My sisters and I went to school every day thinking it was our last. At times we missed weeks of school because we couldn’t afford the fees.”

The impact this could have on a student should not be underestimated. This same student said that her skeleton became “permanently changed due to stress in my back muscles, because I was constantly so anxious about money”.

Unfortunately, this story is not as uncommon as one would like. Another student spoke to me about her experience of when her parents became bankrupt. While her two brothers were immediately transferred to state schools, she stayed at her private school due to her ambitions to study medicine. This pressure caused her such stress that it led her to “lose chunks of hair due to the stress of having to get a scholarship”.

One feeling both students shared was the need to remain silent. Both spoke about feeling like they couldn’t talk about their financial struggles here as they felt “lumped into a category of extremely wealthy students, despite receiving the maximum student loan” and of their experience of being “made to feel ashamed of having attended a private school, whilst being silenced on my financial struggles”.

There is a complex hierarchy that goes beyond the private school versus state school view when it comes to the people’s privilege and its role in admissions at Oxford. It is a complexity that is rarely ever discussed.

Though many private schools supply their students with an invaluable social network when at Oxford, this is most obvious when looking at parts of the London private school network. The benefits of this network are most obvious in extra-curricular activities. When you’re running for positions in various societies, connections are invaluable. This can make working-class and state school educated students feel like outsiders who have to set off on the wrong foot simply due to lack of connections.

On this, one second-year said he had to get past “a lot of internalised anxiety and self-doubt compared to my middle class friends who were well-connected and so confident”. Another said that it is only at the Union that they have been made to feel aware of their class.

This issue manifests itself differently in student drama—it stems from the extra experience available at private schools. One thesp, despite doing “as much theatre as physically possible in school”, still feels disadvantaged when competing with people who were in half a dozen shows a year in school and have had opportunities to use high tech equipment. To them, it seems as though “it doesn’t matter how much effort you put into being a pink lady in year eleven, you’ll always be overshadowed”.

The class barrier at Oxford is evident not only socially, but also academically. Once you get past the process of interviews, the academic disparity between candidates of different backgrounds is still an issue at Oxford. Whilst the University can invest heavily in outreach, it has to be willing to invest more time in students from working-class/ state school backgrounds once they are here. The first issue is obviously one of confidence. Personally, I have been lucky enough to have a tutor who has ensured that I feel affirmed in my right to my place here, however my experience is by no means universal. As one English student put it: “You think the interview process should have been enough to prove you’re worth your place here, but I still felt like I had to prove myself to my tutors, because academically I have always been three steps behind.”

Yet, this isn’t the only issue. The experiences of many students suggest that Oxford, and its tutors, are catering directly for privately educated students. For example, one first year said that they have no idea what grammatical cases are for old English “because the tutor skimmed over them as all bar two of us in the class had studied Latin and already understood them”.

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At my school, the suggestion of doing Latin would have got you laughed out of the room faster than you could say ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (or ‘et cetera’, come to think of it). Another student, who recently sat their finals, said one of the questions was in Latin, despite this not being part of her degree. She says that, if she had been able to read it, that is the question she would have answered.

For the most part, discrimination from tutors towards students of less privileged backgrounds is simply in what they presume. One student described to me how her tutor had told her that Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ was probably his most widely read poem, but that her parents probably wouldn’t know of it. She responded: “I’ve been reading Wordsworth since I was six, we know who Wordsworth is.”

So whilst the University might want to increase its intake of students from state schools, it doesn’t necessarily cater to their needs when they’re here. At times, it can be the academics themselves—who are in a position of authority—compounding the feeling that people here, no matter how liberal or pro-Corbyn they are, ‘just don’t get it’. Though this statement is difficult to unpack, so is the feeling. It’s one of feeling as though your perspective here is assumed, and so not listened to or valued.

I think this is where the real risk of feeling like a product of the Oxford sausage factory comes in—when people feel that their identity as a working-class student is brushed aside, and their insight into working-class issues is trivialised. Classism does exist here in Oxford, and I can tell you that, based off the conversations I’ve had this week, it is not just a statistic. One student I spoke to said a friend had told her that she “couldn’t speak about working-class issues anymore”. By being at Oxford, she was “no longer working-class”. In contrast, another experienced a friend tell her that her parents were unfit because they didn’t have university degrees or ‘proper jobs’.

While it’s true to say that classism exists here, it does too in society at large. There will always be people who will put others down because of their backgrounds, but if people in Oxford feel they are being denied the right to a working-class identity, we face a much bigger issue. It’s horrible to feel underrepresented or alienated here because of your background. It is worse still to be told that your background is now irrelevant, and that a part of your identity has been erased.

The emergence of new initiatives such as OUSU’s Class Act are vital in providing students with a platform for their issues to be voiced and represented. It’s clear that such a platform is necessary given that Class Act has already revealed that over 70 per cent of respondents to a survey believed “your class was a barrier when integrating at University”.

Speaking to Cherwell on the need for the initiative, Jaycie Carter (Class Act co-chair) said: “Currently, the needs of students represented by the Class Act campaign—working-class, low income, state comprehensive school educated and first generation students—are neither adequately discussed nor addressed by the University or by our colleges.”

By bringing working class students together in campaigning, having a unified voice is legitimising in itself. Through campaigns like this, there is a chance that the voice of working-class students can be heard at Oxford. Through this, we can mobilise change.

In terms of ways of making the student body more socially diverse, I don’t think there is any quick fix solution. One JCR Access rep told me: “Though the University is putting in a load of hard work, it’s a long term campaign, so success can’t be immediately measured.”

I think a good starting point would be to demystify Oxford. It really isn’t as hard to get into as I was led to believe in Sixth form. Bright students from under-privileged backgrounds need to be told that Oxford is within their reach too, and that Oxford holds a place for them where their identity can be valued—it’s time to finally debunk the myth of the sausage maker once and for all. Only then can we really break class barriers.