I’m a northern student and I’m sick of my accent being judged at university

Having a northern accent has meant I’ve had a completely different university experience than I expected

As a student who grew up in the north of England and being the first in my immediate family to attend university, I didn’t really know what I was signing up for and so I chose to apply to unis that were relatively close to home. For me, a big reason for this was to minimise the risk of imposter system, thinking that, as an established northerner, I would feel right at home studying at Newcastle University. But I know I don’t speak alone when I say that looking, being or even sounding northern as a student in Newcastle is a strange experience.

Recently, a report by Sutton Trust found that northern students were the most likely to have been mocked, criticised or singled-out in educational settings due to their accents, and that 41 per cent of students originally from the north of England were concerned their accent could affect their ability to succeed.

I travelled up to uni for the first time in September 2019, thinking I would feel comfortable and be embraced, not only as a young adult living alone for the first time, but also as a fellow northerner, being from only two hours away down the A1. But because of my accent, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

My accent would be the target of insults targeted toward me

Having family from all over the country, being around people who sounded different to me was normal. But being mocked and judged over my accent was something I just hadn’t experienced before moving to uni.

It seems I can get away with saying anything in a northern accent, as the biggest problem people seem to have with me isn’t what I say, but what I sound like. I remember being on a night out in first year and defending myself and my friends when we were shoved in a club. The girl that spun around had less to say about my complaint and more to say about how I sounded when I said it, another student but from the south, I guessed from her accent. I was ridiculed not for the words I used but for how I spoke them and laughed at, noses upturned when they couldn’t understand me.

Another time a I was branded “a bloke” by a guy in an attempt to embarrass me in front of my housemates, just because I didn’t sound “feminine” to him. By the end of first year I became unfazed, bored of hearing it by then.

I almost feel ashamed to say I’m from Leeds when meeting new people

I wish someone had warned me about how real the north/south divide is at university, but more importantly about how this is disguised within fashion choices, where we choose to holiday and most notably, how we sound when we talk. So many people are shocked to hear that northerners actually go to uni in the north. When meeting new people I’ve learnt to disguise how I speak, not offering any information on where I’m from unless explicitly asked. As soon as I mention Yorkshire, people switch off, uninterested and seemingly unable to relate to me, considering the county as another holiday destination they visited when they were younger.

Meeting another Yorkshire lad or lass is like striking gold; we discuss the Dales and nights out in Leeds all night at parties and I stick to them, thankful to have someone like me and who is interested in what I had to say. I’ve found that a lot of people I’ve made friends with at uni are also northern, with the few southern friends I have being the most lovely people who I forget I have differences with. They don’t even notice my northern accent, but generally acceptance is few and far between.

Having lived in the east of England until primary school, I find myself slipping back into my old accent all the time – the one I made myself forget when I started secondary school after years of being taunted for my southern pronunciations at primary. I still live half an identity, slipping seamlessly into each accent when around different people to feel accepted. I probably always will now.

Throughout my three years in Newcastle I’ve met countless Geordies who chose to study in their hometown and feel inferior against southern students who move into their city and ridicule them for being out of place. It’s insane.

There’s not really an established place for me and other northern students

Newcastle is notoriously known amongst freshers and alumni alike for being bustling and full of life, but a certain halls is particularly known as feeling like the hub of first year southern students. Walking through there is a rather hostile experience if you don’t fit in; living there is even worse. It’s not a place recommended unless you’re part of the inner circle of those who live there. We just slot into most accommodations here and there.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with someone who asked me if I lived locally in the north east. I told them I was from Leeds, to which they replied “Oh, I always get those accents mixed up. They sound the same to me”. I laughed it off – I’m a confident person, I’m not particularly defensive over my hometown and it wasn’t new to me – but that’s hardly a good thing. But what I’m saying is that northern students are just sort of irrelevant in the eyes of everyone else at uni, really. We just stumble around, say the right things to the right people, make do. Fit in where we can.

I avoid talking about my secondary school education

People conclude I’m of lesser intelligence because of how I sound. Northern accents and private schools do not go hand in hand and my accent is the absolute biggest indicator that I didn’t go to private school, if there ever was one. It’s like having a sign on my head saying “rough and/or uneducated”, as that’s how many people judge me when they hear me speak. Many people have spoken out about being working class at university and how much of a culture shock it is, but being considered unworthy of being here because of my accent is truly bizarre.

Newcastle University is a member of the Russell Group and so everyone worked hard to get in, regardless of class, ethnicity or gender. But from how I’ve been treated once people hear me, it’s like they assume they made an exception for me, a charity case. My A-Levels and GCSE results take people by surprise, like they didn’t expect them from a northern sounding body. I’m met with shocked expressions when I tell people I played sport at school; “Did you play nationals in 2018?” they’d ask, surprised. I didn’t and felt like I played more and more into my stereotype, so I stopped telling people.

If you didn’t go to private school, you may as well save your breath talking about your secondary school experience here. I’ve given up asking people where they went, information they wouldn’t offer after hearing how northern I am and assuming I wouldn’t know it. I’m patronised when I ask people about their summer holidays, as if I wouldn’t know the place because it’s an expensive destination.

A friend of mine declined her offer from Imperial and chose to study in Newcastle, another dropped out of Durham, sick of having to tell people that no, her parents weren’t coal miners. It’s like people don’t believe that “northern” and “university” can even be in the same sentence, never mind enrolled at the same uni as them.

This sort of discriminatory behaviour isn’t excluded just from southerners – only two weeks ago my accent was again the point of contestation from an unpleasant older gentleman in the bank, who didn’t like what I had to say (or more likely how I said it) and then began his rant on how students should only be allowed in one day a week to limit the inconvenience to the public.

I think that progress has been made in accessibility to and diversity within universities, but it’s progress that just isn’t coming quick enough. I think a lot of the problem is due to how embedded these divisions are between north and south. A lot of people don’t recognise their behaviour, but know they feel more comfortable with people who sound and are like themselves. I’ve actually come out of this experience a lot more confident and have found a new admiration for how I sound, but not everyone can relate. University is about exposing yourself to new things, people from all walks of life and backgrounds and I know I speak for thousands of students when I say that we should all feel welcome and comfortable at uni, regardless of all of these things.

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