We are all sadly far too familiar with the numerous articles, news reports and scandals surrounding the lack of diversity in British universities, Oxford arguably the most severely criticized of all. The cohort of the UK’s most elite highest education institutions are consider by many to be shockingly unrepresentative of the country’s demographics.
However, the numerous outreach initiatives piloted by these universities are gradually eroding the long held view that socio-economic background should play a role in the success of an applicant. What this means is that we are currently living in a ‘limbo’ between the old and the new; it is now possible for an old Etonian to live on the same corridor, attend the same lectures, and even socialise with somebody who is the first in their family or school to attend university.
However, does higher education pave the way long lasting friendships between people from very different backgrounds, or is it simply a three-year utopia that is at its best restricted to the university environment?
Friendship is defined by common interest. We choose to be friends with some people over others because we share something with them that others do not. At school, these could be a hobby, a compatible sense of humour (usually dark, in my case) or similar outlook on life. However, the demographics of a university cohort is very different from that of our school, regardless of whether we went to a local comp or to a ‘four figure a term’ boarding school. This throws another factor in the mix of who we bond with: social background.
This is not so much a question of intentional socio-economic segregation by the students, but to put it bluntly money can and does determine who we are and the very things that we can then form friendships over. Schooling and upbringing are responsible for the types of sports, cultural activities and other life experiences available to us. What we find funny also often reflects the circumstances of our upbringing.
Then there is of course the academic divide. Subjects like Classics remain dominated by privately-educated students, even though only 7% of the country’s population received a private education. The University deserves credit for trying to expand access to these fields of study, though there does remain echoes of a sharp social divide.
The privately-educated are surrounded by a disproportionately low number of state-educated course mates. Meanwhile, the state-educated minority is placed in the uncomfortable position of being, perhaps for the first time in their lives, a statistical minority. Both groups can share a love for their subject, though this can often be the extent of their common interests.
For the state school students, it may be no surprise that this unsettling experience would naturally develop into a strong basis for bonding between them. Their presence in these disciplines is alone rare enough to act as a meaningful way to link them together. The downside is the very real risk of vicious cycle developing, in which their background influences social life at university, though also once they leave.
On the other hand, despite the strong legacy that social background can leave on an individual, I believe that it is possible to detach oneself from these factors, even if we can’t control them. What I have just described is a pathway that is taken by many simply because it is simply the easiest way to act when exposed to people whose background and experiences may radically differ to your own. This approach is easiest because it does not require us to step out of our comfort zone and socially adapt to unknown territories. The saying ‘birds of a feather flock together’ has been more appropriate.
To disregard these factors can be a challenge, though I would argue that there is a reward if we do. We can access a more raw and authentic type of friendship. Our anxieties, opinions on our lecturers, and our unhealthy love for Hassan’s are all examples of things we share and our class does not pre-determine. It is essential that we try our very best to leave social background literally in the background when we arrive at university – it already plays a too big of a role in wider society.
No sane person would argue that numerous cultural, academic and sporting clubs at Britain’s best universities should be reserved for the rich. They should be open to all members of the University that have an interest in them. The problem lies in how centuries of class segregation have led us to believe that certain activities are simply reserved for the most affluent. It is precisely this ingrained view that impedes cross class interaction.
I am proud to say that, as an Oxford University student, I have encountered several people of various backgrounds who share my belief that wealth should be irrelevant in our university experience. For social barriers to truly break, there needs to be a more profound change in the way that society has been associating wealth, culture and future potential. The drawback is that there are still many people, both within and outside of university, that have not yet disassociated these elements. There is hope however in the fact this new and positive mentality is steadily growing. If social barriers are broken anywhere at all, it is at university. The illusion is that it is easy, the misconception is that it is impossible.
In my opinion, there are no fixed outcomes when it comes to university. To this day, higher education does not always guarantee the breakdown of social barriers, but we are fortunate to live in an age where there is more potential for this to occur than there has ever been before.
Seeds have been sown for this necessary removal of these very social barriers. The unique Foundation Year program for disadvantaged students recently launched by Lady Margaret Hall is just one example of this. As is the gradual increase of access initiatives for activities conducted by all top UK universities. The climate for change is certainly present. There is no denying it is in its early stages, but I am optimistic that there will be a gradual transformation of the mentality surrounding class and social expectations. This should hopefully make university what it should have always been: a vehicle for social mobility.