I open the call unaware that the student I am about to interview is actually in self isolation. Jade (she/they) appears on camera with a juice box one of her flatmates picked up – she laughs at how she feels like a kid with a packed lunch when drinking it. Jade is a second year History Student at St Peters, and Co-Chair of Class Act, the SU Campaign intended to support, represent and campaign on behalf of students from working class, low income, first generation and state comprehensive school backgrounds.
Yet, how they got involved is somewhat unconventional: “I sort of joined by accident”, Jade laughs. “I mean I was always aware of Class Act; I had seen their stall at the Freshers Fair, and was looking to support them and get involved in any way I could – I didn’t know how to. Then throughout the year, they had some drop in sessions, I messaged and they were always super friendly! I saw that the SU had campaign elections and I wasn’t quite sure how the elections worked so just put myself down for a Class LGBT intersection rep and then forgot about it. I think I meant to apply for LGBTQ Soc, because I thought it was the same thing. So, I had applied for Class Rep for Soc and Class Rep for Campaign, and no one ran against me, so I got it by default.”
Jade reflects, “It was one of the best accidents that has ever happened to me at Oxford, because I found a group of people I could relate to and talk to honestly about our experiences. For me, this was being part of both Class Act and LGBTQ Campaign. And we were actually getting involved with the issues, getting on with things and it’s a group of people who aren’t doing things for their own CV. It was like, alright we have got some issues at this university, let’s work on it and actually fight for something better.”
Jade’s passion shines through as we delve deeper into some of the projects that Class Act is currently working on: “There are quite a few! Class Act are really keen to do a report or investigation into the realities of lived experiences of Oxford students from the broad under-privileged social-economic class umbrella. It gets parroted so much at open days and in access literature that ‘it doesn’t matter which college you go to’ – I think there is a lot of reasons why that is a myth. If you are a low-income student or an independent student, it can have a significant effect on the cost of living, the state school to private ratio, hardship funds, the general atmosphere and whether you feel supported coming from a particular background. When I was applying to Oxford, I was told to apply to Mansfield where there is a lot of state-school students; instead I went to St Peters which is 50% private school and it doesn’t have a lot of money to support people financially. There is a lack of information and transparency, and the experience of applying for the hardship fund is different at each college. So, this is something that we really want to tackle.”
Jade pauses for a moment, before going on to articulately voice a wider issue they think this speaks to, “Personally speaking, a lot of people have a two minded opinion of access. On the one hand you want to make sure Oxford is open to everyone, regardless of background, ensuring the people who would get something out of it, have the chance to come here. My concern is once you are at Oxford, is there support in place? Is there a healthy, supportive environment for you once you are here, and can I honestly say that is true? For some students, if they find the right people or are at the right college, they will really enjoy their time here and will encourage people to apply. Other people have had really nasty experiences, and therefore well-reasoned reservations as to why they may think ‘am I just leading lambs to the slaughter here when I tell them to apply to Oxford’ even though they are capable of the work. So when I think about access, I think about access as in improving the accessibility and experience of students when they are actually here. And that’s what Class Act is all about, we are not about outreach but about improving the experience of students who are here.”
“On top of the report, I have been working with a friend to create a working-class magazine for creatives, featuring poetry, art and essays, which has been a long time coming,” Jade continues. “I think the creative scene at Oxford can feel a bit impenetrable, private school London dominated, and it doesn’t speak much to my experiences. It appeals to a certain type of person, and often doesn’t involve many people from the class umbrella background. And that cycle is perpetuated in the real world, where so much attention is given to the middle class creative world in London, and more provincial creative institutions outside of London are not given as much of a look in or funding.”
They laugh as they say, “Of course, us putting out a little magazine isn’t going to fix all of that. But hopefully in some small way, it will give people a bit of confidence. I think that is something that is really lacking in people, they’ll think ‘oh this isn’t for me’ but if you give someone a platform, help someone gain confidence by saying ‘you are really good – maybe no one has said you are really good before but you are, and maybe you should pursue this? you might not have gone to a private school with a really top of the range creative faculty and your own school arts magazine, but that doesn’t mean you can’t create and that doesn’t mean you aren’t worth listening to, or it’s not worth exhibiting your work.’ You need diverse voices.”
As the interview draws to a close, Jade reflects on the discussions of class at Oxford: “I think more broadly, class as a topic, as a discussion point, is something that people should be aware of. I don’t think it is on minds of the student population as much as it ought to be.” They continue, “which is interesting because when a lot of people think of Oxbridge, in the media and the wider general public’s view of the institutions, they often think of it as elitist, with the image of the Bullingdon Club coming to mind. Yet when you get to oxford, people don’t necessarily show a nuanced awareness beyond one off comments about Eton or private schools.”
“Talking to privileged people about class, and their ideas of what a working class person is are so far removed from my own experiences,” Jade continues, “and they mean well, a lot of people mean well, but there are still people who have said to me ‘I have never met people from your background before’ and that concerns me. That concerns me because I don’t view myself as some sort of street urchin from some Dickensian novel. I am not some outlier, but to these people I’m the lowest of the low they’ve ever met in terms of wealth – which is just bizarre. I don’t view myself as particularly underprivileged at home, I’m just a normal person, but when i get here, these are the people who have aspirations to be MPs, policy advisors, involved in powerful institutions, to run the country… but they’ve never met a person who comes from a family in the North, whose family income is less than the national average. That’s what scares me.”
“And if I’m the first person who they meet, the first interaction, someone that has to educate them … how do I educate someone about that? How do I respond to that, how do I act? I have my own perspective, my own experiences, my experiences aren’t typical because I am an ethnic minority, and from the LGBTQ+ community, alongside other things – all those nuanced, unique things that everyone has. But I have made it to Oxford and the postcode where I’m from, 50% of the people don’t have five good GCSEs, yet I’m at what is ranked as one of the best universities in the world.”
“I sometimes feel like I have a sort of responsibility that I didn’t ask for and I also don’t know how to navigate it. Before Oxford, I have never had to be the ‘token poor person’.”
To get involved with any of the projects mentioned above, or Class Act more generally, you can go to the SU website. You can also contact them via email [email protected], or visit their Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.