The Great Divide | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

The Great Divide

Comment Writer Jadzia Samuels highlights the class divisions at UoB

Growing up as the ‘Bursary Kid’ in a private secondary school, I have been painfully aware of class divisions from a young age.

Despite my obvious social privilege of having a stable roof over my head and two university graduate parents, the contrast between my lifestyle and that of my peers was stark: their Jack Wills hoodies, glamorous summer holiday destinations, and ability to fork out for school trips were, for me, utterly unattainable.

But regardless of these discrepancies, the fact is that I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to study in a good private school and the option of university was never even questioned. I anticipated finding there a wider variety of people than those I had met at school; I had been told that nowadays things had changed and universities were no longer full of the stereotyped rich, middle-class kids.

I had been told that nowadays things had changed and universities were no longer full of the stereotyped rich, middle-class kids

The first indicator that this wasn’t quite accurate was when I received my accommodation offer from Tennis Courts in the June before coming to university. I was away from home when I received the congratulatory email. The obvious excitement I had felt initially, soon vanished upon reaching the bottom of the email, which stated that I now had four days to pay a pre-payment of £600 or else I would lose my place.

After a panicked phone call to my mum from miles away, she fortunately was able scrape together enough to lend me the money. However, if I were to have been less privileged, without parents who were financially able (or willing) to help me out, where was I expected to find over half a grand in four days? I know that I was not the only student thrust into a difficult situation by this, and if it doesn’t speak for the obvious expectation for well-off students, I don’t know what does.

The wealth disparities, of which I was so aware in secondary school, were equally prevalent here

Tennis Courts is one of the more affordable accommodations available for first year students, yet in the group of seventeen wonderful friends I made, I soon discovered that no less than four of us had come from private schools, and all, bar one other than me, were in receipt of the lowest student loan and therefore from very high-income families.

An independent article from 2016 quoted that in Russell Group universities, an astonishing 26% of student recruits were from private schools, despite the fact that, according to the ISC, they only make up for 6.5% of the educated population. The wealth disparities, of which I was so aware in secondary school, were equally prevalent here. Despite there being an evident majority of middle class students with well-off parents, by no means do they make up the entirety of the university population. To me, it seems that the University needs to update the backward assumption that students are able to pay large sums of money on such short notice; it is time for an update in accommodation policy, which caters to students from all financial backgrounds.

I encountered yet another shocking financial demand over the summer this year, when I had to fork out nearly £1000 in rent to pay for my student house (which I did not occupy)

It is not only the fault of insensitive university admin policies; I encountered yet another shocking financial demand over the summer this year, when I had to fork out nearly £1000 in rent to pay for my student house (which I did not occupy). Even working full time all the summer, my income was barely enough to cover the expense, but again I was lucky enough to have been able to borrow this money. The issue of paying rent over the summer is extremely problematic for numerous students, whose parents cannot pay, and who are often unable borrow the money, meaning that they end up hundreds of pounds into their overdraft before term even begins.

Yet again, this financial demand adheres to the expectation that students come from wealthy enough families to be able to afford their child’s rent with ease. At many other universities, student housing is available for nine-month contracts – significantly decreasing students’ expenses. There needs to be a universal policy on this matter, to attempt to regulate student expenditure on housing across the country, because any student from a truly underprivileged background would be put off of the Birmingham area wholescale due to the extreme financial strains.

A recent Sports’ Night theme of ‘chavs’ caused quite a reaction from many students who felt that this potentially distasteful ‘costume’ was classist and derogatory towards their lower income families

It is not only financially that there is an overwhelming assumption that university students come from more middle-class backgrounds. Socially there appears to be a lack of sensitivity towards students from working-class families. A recent Sports’ Night theme of ‘chavs’ caused quite a reaction from many students who felt that this potentially distasteful ‘costume’ was classist and derogatory towards their lower income families. The word “chav” has distinct associations of class (frequently being acronymised to Council-Housed-And-Violent), and one UoB student declared that by turning class into a costume, it made her ‘feel unwelcome.’ She argued that ‘the very people [who are being made fun of…] are the ones that I have grown up around and have as friends and family.’ And despite the tradition of tongue-in-cheek humour of Sports’ Night, this costume does show a degree of insensitivity towards the students who perhaps already feel ostracised by the blatantly middle-class majority.

Birmingham is one of the best Russell Group universities for accepting students from low income backgrounds, yet even here the class gap is overwhelmingly obvious. The financial expectations of students (before even considering factors such as the expenses of joining social groups, such as sports’ teams) clearly display a university culture which favours students from wealthier backgrounds. And the lack of social sensitivity shown with the latest Sports’ Night theme again suggests the middle-class social bubble which seems to encapsulate university life.



Published

5th December 2017 at 9:00 am



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