Meet The 93% Club: The student group aiming to level the playing field for state school kids at Durham

They want to help students regardless of background

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"Inclusive" and "diverse" are not words regularly associated with Durham University. Last month the university was revealed to be the sixth worst in the country for social inclusivity with only 63 per cent of incoming students in 2016/17 from a state educated background, out of the 93 per cent of all state educated students in the UK.

That's where aptly named 93% Club comes in. They aim not only to help those not included in the seven per cent get into Durham, but also to help current students navigate university life and find employment after graduation.

As part of The Tab’s 10x Campaign for fairness in admissions, we spoke to several founding members of The 93% Club at Durham to discuss their experiences of the university, why many state educated students are at a disadvantage at Durham and most importantly, what they want to do to help the situation.

Inspired by the Bristol organisation of the same name, Fran Walker, who was the first in her family to go to university, recently set up The 93% Club Durham to provide a framework of support for state educated students who do not have the same opportunities as others at the university. "We’re not here to fix the education system. We’re here to help students and inspire others," she says.

Jordan, the club's Corporate Liaison, says: “We are built on three main pillars: firstly to acknowledge the inherent differences of experience, secondly, to look at how we can move state school students into professional employment and finally, to take part in outreach work to show students it is possible to attend Durham and help them get here”.

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Getting into university

The five students we met are from across the UK, but all share common experiences in applying to and attending Durham University. The 93% Club believe many students from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t know the opportunities available to them in higher education, and receive little tailored support for their ambitions.

They all agree the focus on A*- C passes constrains schools and results in many students being left behind. President Cerys Jones, from Huddersfield, commented: "I found that if you were achieving a C at GCSE, you were not given any additional support which makes it difficult to inspire yourself to achieve a higher grade. People are unaware of what’s out there. You’re just a little face in the classroom".

Ellie James, who attended her local comprehensive in Swindon, had a similar experience: "Up until very late in the application process, I had never heard of Durham! Although my school did support me, changing my mindset to believe I could achieve more was a personal drive. There was a need to go against the grain in order to get here."

While many privately educated pupils receive extra support in studies, applications, extra curricular and personal statement-writing, other students are left to their own devices. But the 93% Club don't want to sink themselves into student politics or a class war, they want to put students first. “We’re working above class and political divides,” Fran says. “We’re here to help students and inspire others. This is the situation and how best can we deal with it?”

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Two different worlds

Durham's 93% Club stress how the support of their parents and the work of a number of organisations such as the Linacre Institute has helped them achieve their potential, but this experience is not necessarily representative of everyone.

Attending Durham is a hugely different experience to attending other universities. The workload, etiquette and culture shift are much more apparent here than anywhere outside of Oxbridge. 93% Club member William Ryan from Essex says "trying to adapt to this new culture" is half the battle, adding "no one else from my area went to Durham."

"When I joined I felt huge imposter syndrome,” says Fran. “You continually feel like you’ve got to do more. There are times which are extremely isolating, where you wish the easier route was the option.”

Cerys says: "I was petrified of coming to a university that, in my eyes was out of my reach and I didn't deserve to be at. I cried for weeks before Freshers' because I thought I had made a terrible decision and that I would never fit in. The 93% Club being a community for students like myself who possibly need that additional support upon arriving and throughout."

Fran and the rest of the Club want to help by not only offering support to current students in adapting to life at Durham, but also acting as a network which helps build students’ professional profile. Cerys found difficulty in where to start with the professional world. “I came to uni without a CV, didn’t know LinkedIn, even personal marketing on Instagram. I had a different kind of support network to other students", she says.

The sectors the group's parents work in ranges from nursing to IT, but often these professions don't necessarily offer the same networks or insight into a more corporate realm. "Nepotism" is not a word The 93% Club use. Instead, they say that many disadvantaged students just lack experience and support in the corporate sphere, meaning they can remain two steps behind in approaching the graduate jobs market when matched against their perhaps better connected and privately educated counterparts.

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Filling the gap

To an outsider, The 93% Club’s very existence will beg questions as to what outreach programme the university currently has to improve social inclusivity, and what support it offers to disadvantaged students.

Although the new society's interests don't lie in taking down Durham, they feel their approach is half-hearted, insincere and reactionary. Jordan says: “Durham and a lot of top unis are good at paying lip-service to issues but when you scratch below the surface there’s little that holds up”.

For Fran it’s about having “passion from the cause from an institutional perspective," and making "inclusivity a central principle of the university rather than a strategic thing”.

The 93% Club highlights the issue of school outreach beyond the North East and a lack of obvious student support. Durham has an outreach program, and the communications team told The Durham Tab: “The Supported Progression Scheme targets talented students in the North East, Yorkshire and Cumbria who might benefit from additional support to reach their potential – offering them a two-year programme of specialised guidance and support, including a residential summer school."

They've also started giving "contextual offers", to certain prospective students, essentially "lowering entry requirements by one or two grades for talented students from disadvantaged socio-economic groups who have faced obstacles to educational attainment, but who demonstrate exceptional ability".

Despite this, when first years arrive at Durham, William feels there's not enough adequate support to help state school students adjust to the university's high expectations. “On a cultural level it’s a difficult situation for the university”, he says. "Culturally they're in a difficult position, but economically they could do more."

Durham claims to be making strides, and told The Durham Tab: “We have set out ambitious plans which look at the broader University experience for these students, and how best we can develop tailored support throughout their degree programmes, helping them address specific challenges they may face.

“Our new First Generation Scholars network is one such initiative. It has been established to celebrate and promote the achievements of people who are the first generation in their family to go to University".

The 93% club points out that small and inexpensive measures such as dissertation print credit, a greater supply of core textbooks for modules, gown hire costs and investment in an improved careers department could go some way towards day-to-day assistance. They argue the uni should have a more holistic view of social responsibility. For Cerys there is a need to “look at the situation and put measures in place rather than covering tracks”.

For The 93% Club, the way they can make a difference is by being pro-active and helping students rather than arguing about the issue. Durham’s social inclusivity problem is there for all to see, but The 93% Club aims to help on the ground – to assist prospective students, current students, and graduates.

The 93% Club Durham will be hosting an informal "Headshots and Chill" event at the DSU on 6th November, taking headshots for professional social media profiles amidst applications season. Anyone is welcome and the exec will be there with any advice and support for anyone who needs it.

The Tab’s 10x Campaign on fairness in uni admissions is named after how much more likely privileged students are to progress to a top uni. If you want to contribute to The Tab’s 10x Campaign with a personal story or news tip, please email [email protected]

Read more about The Tab’s 10x campaign:

Privileged students are 10x more likely to progress to a top uni. The Tab is campaigning to change that

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