There’s something special about being a northerner at Oxford. It’s an extraordinary yet alarming experience. Recently released statistics show that the University of Oxford takes more students from the Home Counties (the few counties surrounding London) than the whole region of the North, and David Lammy MP’s ongoing battle with Oxbridge admissions has highlighted how intakes are “utterly unrepresentative of life in modern Britain.”
As a geography student from Manchester, the impact of these statistics resonated deeply. This issue is one in danger of being appropriated by southerners, so I consider it necessary to express my thoughts on poor northern intake to elite universities and how this affects my daily life as an Oxford student. There might be humorous sides to my northern identity, but perhaps this simply makes it more difficult to illuminate what are serious and systematic disadvantages rooted in the country’s economic North/South Divide. As one friend has pointed out, being northern becomes, to a certain extent, your identity at Oxford. Whilst people obviously define themselves in other ways too, a casual summary description of a northern (or Welsh, Scottish, American or international) student would always include their place of origin in a way which doesn’t apply to southerners.
The fact that we are in the minority makes us distinct from those who might be considered ‘normal’, and makes regional cultural differences obvious in our interactions with other students. This is a sentiment which is probably even more applicable to students of colour – and whilst this should not diminish the struggles of northerners – racial and ethnic minorities are undoubtedly subject to another dimension of alienation, something which was highlighted by David Lammy’s research.
Nevertheless, ‘The North’ seems to be unchartered territory for southerners. Not only have few of my university friends ever visited anywhere other than the Lake District or occasionally York, there is also a basic lack of knowledge about the region which makes it seem like it’s irrelevant to many. I find myself trying not to tell new people that I’m from a village between Bury and Bolton – “near Manchester” is the standard reply to the age-old conversation opener, “Where are you from?”. Literature and the media have painted a picture of the North as an industrial wasteland with constant rain and an impoverished populace, such that southerners maintain negative associations with what are now thriving and developing places. My subconscious response is therefore to identify myself with a city I live forty-five minutes away from, if only to avoid the inevitable groan when southerners hear the word ‘Bolton’ or the blank expression from the word ‘Bury’.
There’s no point in denying that being a northerner here can be hilarious – there are certain personal features, often language or accent-based, which distinguish you from the majority of your friends, and which often become a topic of conversation. I know several people who consistently repeat what I’ve just said back to me in my own Bolton accent, completely unconsciously – it becomes a source of embarrassment when I then point it out to them, but is nonetheless a clear subconscious acknowledgement of difference between us.
Dealing tactfully with southerners’ heinous attempts at northern accents is a challenge in itself, but it’s quite disarming to hear my sentence again without having said anything I consider to be worth imitating. The fact that people never seem to be able to differentiate between, for example, Manchester and Yorkshire accents is also slightly insulting; it’s all in the spirit of joke, but it does highlight a general ignorance about the North and an underlying assumption that ‘it’s all the same up there’.
On a more practical level, the vacations present a challenge. Invariably, visiting university friends will involve the investment of considerable amounts of time and money. London is always the hub, owing to its transport links as well as the fact that it’s the home of most of the people I’m visiting, but being stuck up North often entails disproportionate effort just to spend a couple of nights with friends. southerners have the monopoly in every way. I become unjustifiably excited when I meet a single other person who lives within a two-hour drive from my home town. I didn’t realise how different the situation was for northerners until I saw that my London based friends can’t identify with each other if they don’t live under three tube stops apart.
Whilst the community that northern students at Oxford belong to includes those from Liverpool, Manchester, Yorkshire, Newcastle, Cumbria and further, Londoners differentiate between themselves when they live even in separate areas of the same city.
It’s true that these experiences are shared among the few northerners in my college – a friend’s date telling her that “a northern accent is a very interesting novelty” is probably one of the more blatant ways that a southerner has acknowledged the differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’. But on a deeper level, someone’s voice being novel in the same country is worrying – there is a fundamental divide between northern and southern students here that is constantly highlighted in the everyday context.
Being ‘the northerner in the group’ may confer special status and an exemption from all posh jokes regardless of my private-school background, but I do think it has more sinister implications.
I realised the scale of the problem when faced with the stats: it’s particularly shocking that about three-quarters of the UK population live outside London and the South East, yet this region contributes to nearly half of the population of Oxford students. According to the BBC, only 15% of Oxford offer holders came from the North West, the North East, Yorkshire, and the Humber combined between 2010-2015. In contrast, 48% came from London and South-East England.
Whilst well-meaning southerners are indignant on behalf of their northern counterparts, and angry at the obvious prejudice, it’s northerners themselves that should be explaining this issue. It’s not just about Oxford tutors being subconsciously discriminatory against northern accents, although this may contribute. A 2014 survey of British adults by ComRes found that northern accents (categorised as Manchester, Liverpool, and Newcastle) were consistently rated as perceived to be the least intelligent.
This is, however, an issue that goes beyond the university. The geographical disparities in admissions to top universities are a symptom of the country’s North/South Divide. I don’t mean to justify the appalling statistics, but rather I wish to explain them in their wider economic context.
It is true that in London and the South East, a higher proportion of pupils achieve the standard AAA A-level requirement to realistically apply to Oxford or Cambridge. Whilst around 15,700 pupils from the South and East of the country get three As every year (according to figures from Oxford), this number falls to 6,000 in the North and 3,700 in the Midlands. The divide in educational attainment is obvious, and demonstrative of the regional geography at play: the lottery of where you’re born determines where you’re going to end up.
In general, incomes are significantly lower in the North of England – Londoners on average have twice the economic value of people in the North of England, claims The Financial Times. The connection between family income and educational attainment is well-established, with a higher concentration of well-off families in the South producing a bigger pool of high-achieving students in this half of the country. Whilst there are, of course, exceptions to the rule, the lower grades that northern students get is partly down to lack of ambition, something which is emphasised much more in middle-class families with what Frank Ferudi (author and professor of sociology at the University of Kent) has labelled ‘intensive parenting’.
Then there’s the vicious economic circle: less money in the North means that professionals and those seeking higher incomes move to the South, taking their money with them to only exacerbate the problem. This is something I’m considering myself: with a new base in Oxford, and friends around the country, returning to Manchester to work and earn a significantly lower salary than could be found in London is not especially appealing. London, alongside cities such as Bristol, is sucking in graduates due to its generous salary offers and exciting career prospects: The Guardian reported last year that the North sees a net loss of around 75,000 graduates per decade to the south. This creates a ‘brain-drain’ from the North, which denies that region the money it needs to develop economically. Not only that, but this exacerbates the divide in education, as graduates are typically those who will raise children who also become graduates.
This is something that the government is currently failing to address. George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse Partnership project has struggled so far to provide the transformational transport links the region so desperately needs. In the foreword to a recent NPP report, Osborne despairingly described northern areas of specific expertise as “in pockets across the region, separated by traditional geographic boundaries with proud local identities.” As a northerner and a geographer, I don’t see how differing local identities are insurmountable barriers to economic progress: the former Chancellor is almost painting northerners like tribes that can’t communicate with each other.
Therefore, there is simply less money in the north to create a solid educational infrastructure. The high proportion of prestigious independent schools in the South, particularly in London, act as ‘feeder schools’ into Oxbridge. The Sutton Trust found that between 2002-2006, 15% of admissions to Oxbridge could be traced to just 30 schools across the country. Private education, which is likely to provide better teaching and resources to equip students with promising applications, is less affordable and therefore less popular in the North.
Even those that do get that opportunity seem to be disadvantaged, given that private schools in regions including Yorkshire, Humber, the East Midlands, and the North East send half as many students to Oxbridge as the national average. As southern private schools continue to send more students to top universities (such as Westminster School and St Paul’s Girls’ School, each of which sent almost half of their university applicants to Oxbridge over a five year period, as the Sutton Trust found), they learn what works. Whilst Oxbridge claims that they assess the potential of prospective students, it is worth asking whether this is possible: are they seeing the raw potential of a candidate, or a finished product? The statistics would suggest the latter, with so many of my university friends describing their southern schools as ‘Oxbridge machines’ that are able to mass-produce successful applications through the devotion of time and resources to high-achieving students. The sheer number of people that I’ve met who attended London private schools is staggering: too many conversations involve me listening mutely as people discover or discuss their mutual friends from neighbouring schools.
Yet the biggest contributor to this admissions pattern, in my view, is a result of the social implications of economic inequality. Oxford simply isn’t attractive to many northern students. As Professor Danny Dorling explained in this year’s Access Lecture at University College, only 15-25% of straight-A students from the North and Wales applied to Oxford, compared to 30-35% in the South, even after adjusting for geographical differences in population and attainment.
Many northern students think that they won’t fit in at Oxbridge. The general atmosphere of the South is tangibly different to our home towns. My sister, visiting a few days ago, notably echoed my exact first thought I had on arriving for an open day before applying: she remarked that people dress so much better in Oxford.
This might seem like a throwaway comment, but on closer examination it reveals the greater presence of the middle classes, who can afford expensive clothing through increased disposable income. There is a middleclass feel which permeates Oxford, and which may be intimidating to northern students who haven’t encountered this before and feel that it may not suit them: perhaps this explains why so many of the northern Oxford students I know in fact come from the pockets of affluence which pepper the region. It’s worth acknowledging that university students do tend to choose institutions closer to home (the £50, four-hour train journey home sometimes makes me wish I’d done the same), and the vast majority of my home friends do attend northern universities.
Not only do the aforementioned factors contribute to this, but I would say that we were conditioned at school to apply to these institutions partly through the precedent set by previous years. I was the only student from my school to go to Oxbridge that year, in contrast to the hordes sent from some southern schools.
It would therefore seem that many northern students don’t find Oxford accessible as a result of the monopoly of middle-class, private school-educated students – it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Oxford life suits me well, and the differences I find myself remarking upon are ultimately all in a jokey way, but there are times when being singled out as regionally foreign can be alienating – we’ve got to work against that if these statistics are going to improve any time soon.