‘You’re actually pretty intelligent’: Students share their experiences of classism at uni

After speaking in a seminar, one student was told: ‘It’s funny hearing something clever in that accent’


With stories such as students aiming to “sleep with the poorest fresher” emerging in recent years, classism has proven to be rife across UK universities. And whilst organisations such as The 93 per cent Club and The Sutton Trust are aiming to tackle these issues, discrimination based on class is a problem prevalent across UK Universities.

The UK’s top universities have been urged to act on classism and accent prejudice after the Social Mobility Commission described the situation as unacceptable, claiming accents had become a “tangible barrier” for students.

The Tab spoke to working class students across 13 UK universities who have experienced classism at uni and this is what they had to say:

I felt so out of place that I developed severe anorexia and have never recovered

Attending university at Durham, Francesca immediately felt out of place from her peers. With a part-time job to fund her studies, she “couldn’t afford endless drinks and fancy balls” or spend time getting to know people as she was at work and immediately felt cast aside.

She felt she couldn’t relate to her peers who went to boarding school and on cruises or skiing, and was always told to get her parents to secure her a job or internship. The discrimination Francesca faced will “stick with her for life” and caused her to develop severe anorexia, something which she has never recovered from.

Someone once asked me: ‘How do I speak to disadvantaged students?’

Oxford student, Maja*, was asked: “How do I speak to disadvantaged students?” by another student at the university. They were also “drunkenly told the north is a shithole.”

Maja* continued, suggesting as much as they like the academic side of uni, “I feel like Oxford is not somewhere where I would necessarily want to thrive socially”.

Your writing skills are pretty good for a Grimbsy girl

For Ani*, after asking her flatmate at Leeds Beckett University to proofread a report, she was told her writing skills were “pretty good for a Grimbsy girl” a comment which she told The Tab “will stick with me for life and is a prime example of a southern/northern divide, especially amongst university students.”

What school did you go to?

Arriving at Cambridge, Jordan* was repeatedly asked which school he attended. At first, he thought it a geographical question, wondering who was likely to have heard of a “bog-standard state-comp in Birmingham” but after a while realised what people were looking for.

He continued: “It was only in my second year I realised they had desperately wanted me to ask about their school and have heard of it. It was absolutely a class question and my standard answer just became ‘oh you wouldn’t have heard of it’ to avoid the awkwardness.”

My accent was considered ‘rude’ and ‘bad-mannered’

Attending Oxford University with a northern, working-class accent, Beth* said she found two types of tutors. The first, she got the impression, saw her accent as “rude” and “bad-mannered”. She explained she felt pressured to “change my accent to fit in with what they deem as appropriate.” This, she says, was implied more subtly to her face but also behind her back to other tutors.

However, she says that the second kind, who at first seemed like they would fight her corner, turned out much worse. She remembers being treated like a “project” and described it as a “Billy Elliott type scenario.” For example, she described one instance with the tutor making a classical reference to Athens v Sparta and turning to her saying: “Oh you know like Newcastle vs Sunderland at the Derby” and everybody in the class laughed.

“It was only when I went on my year abroad and I worked with colleagues in France and Germany, where I was just the British one and not the Geordie one or the ‘chavvy’ one. This was when the classism became really obvious to me.”

It just sounds so funny hearing something clever in that accent

Beth* wasn’t the only student who experienced discrimination due to her accent. For Ella* at Newcastle, after making a point in a seminar she was told by another student it “sounds so funny hearing something clever in that accent.”

I literally changed my whole self to fit in

Accents have shown to be a huge point of discrimination at university. Rebecca* describes the way she “literally changed my whole self to fit in – my voice, the way I looked, my mannerisms, everything” at uni. She continued, “I literally changed my accent from Stokie to Tory because people wouldn’t even give me the time of day. I would speak and I could see it was grilling them.”

I was told I’d have a worse quality of life

At Ulster University, Sam* was told by a lecturer that they “would have a worse quality of life because I’m from the north of England in front of the whole lecture hall.”

They went on to say that the same lecturer didn’t help throughout their entire time at university and was constantly palming them off to other lecturers. “It made me feel inadequate and as though I wasn’t good enough to be studying for my degree. But it also made me feel more determined and I did prove her wrong in the end which was satisfying.”

They told a student who didn’t have a camera on their laptop to just buy one for the next seminar

 Jodie* also experienced classism from a member of the teaching staff at York. She describes a lecturer “who first of all would insist on people having their camera on during seminars and called them out for not turning them on (which of course absolutely couldn’t be mandatory).

“They also told a student who didn’t have a camera on their laptop to just buy one for the next seminar as though it were that simple and marked me down for an oral project because of my audio quality, which was something I had no control of over the pandemic.”

She went on to say: “I think individually these incidents come across as just insensitive but all together some of us thought it came across quite classist.”

The posh girl was referred to as the ‘clever one’

Emily* said she experienced classism first hand at Leeds when in a breakout room. She explained, “Another student referred to the posh girl as being ‘the clever one’ despite her having not read the material”. Coming from the North East, Emily said, “I think they automatically assumed I was a bit thick in that particular instance.” She later dropped out of Leeds University

Do you have a scholarship or something?

At St Andrews, Josie* had more than five people question whether she had a scholarship after telling them she attended a state school. She said: “They couldn’t possibly believe that I was smart enough to get As and get in like they did.”

You seem really intelligent for someone who went to a public school

Similarly, for Sophie* at Exeter University, her first week of uni was greeted by a student with the remark: “You seem really intelligent for someone who went to a public school” by a privately-educated peer.

She continued by suggesting she always felt a sense of inferiority and imposter syndrome in seminars when other students used “all this fancy language” to convey their points despite having never actually done the reading.

“We all got into the same place, why does it matter that they paid thousands for the same education that I received for free.”

What school did you go to? You’re clearly not a chav because you’re dressed like that

Attending Durham University, Flora* said classism has been a huge part of her uni experience. She said: “For a little while I did feel like I didn’t belong here and I felt inferior but I don’t know why I let people make me feel like that.”

For example, she describes one particular incident during a night out where she was being “chatted up” by a fellow student. She wasn’t remotely interested and when he realised this “he got a lot more forward and started using what I call typical Durham tactics, talking about his background and his wealth – he’d gone to quite a renowned private school in England.

“It started to become very showy-offy and then he started being a lot more complimentary towards me. He asked, ‘What school did you go to? You’re clearly not a chav because you’re dressed like that'”

Flora* continued, suggesting: “In my eyes, that’s quite a classist remark. I told him that I went to a state comprehensive but he didn’t believe me based on the way that I looked. I wasn’t wearing anything particularly fancy or expensive, but I had to convince him I wasn’t from a wealthy background. I said as much as I could to show that I didn’t agree with him but I wasn’t going to take it upon myself to educate this man on social issues because it wasn’t the right environment.

“What this issue exemplified and after speaking to many people with similar experiences is that certain students at Durham with power and privilege feel a sense of entitlement, especially when they don’t get what they want.”

A spokesperson for the University of York said: “We are sorry to hear about these experiences and would really like these students to get in touch. Anyone experiencing technical difficulties can contact our IT support team to explore what options there are, and we also have a range of financial support for any student struggling during the pandemic.”

We have approached Oxford University and Ulster University for comment.

Related articles recommended by this writer:

• ‘I’m making fun of you because you’re poor’: Northern students on classism at Durham

•‘People demean me because of how I speak’: Durham second year on classism at university

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