Students with regional accents face ridicule and feel marginalised in UK universities, a conference has heard.
The annual conference of access charity The Brilliant Club, held in Stoke-on-Trent, heard that prejudice towards people with strong accents is the last “acceptable form” of discrimination, and that universities should do more to tackle it.
Katie Edwards, director of the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Bible Studies, said that people with regional accents are frequently regarded as being “rough” or “common”.
She said that she had faced mockery for her Yorkshire pronunciation as a student and even now is urged to tone down her speech.
Students with strong accents are less likely to contribute in seminars and are more likely to drop out, said Dr Edwards, who claimed that universities dismissed this type of prejudice as a “non-issue”.
“Why is this OK? It’s almost an acceptable form [of discrimination],” Dr Edwards said. “People can say it without very much being said [against it] in a way that, if [it were] discrimination about other aspects of identity...it would not be allowed.”
Beccy Earnshaw, director of Voice 21, a campaign to get speaking skills taught in all state schools, said that arriving at university can be a disorienting experience for some teenagers with regional accents, especially those from poorer backgrounds.
“You were probably one of the strongest speakers in your school, one of the people most likely to contribute, and you get to university and you’re sat in a room [of people] who are so much more confident than you and speak in a way that you don’t speak,” Ms Earnshaw said. “You spend a good two terms building your confidence back up to be able to participate.”
But Faye Raw, a recruitment manager at BCS Consulting, questioned whether regional accents remain a significant barrier to higher education and employment.
“We have moved on, I think, from accent acting as such a social marker, and in some cases I see those with a plummier accent… actually not doing as well as a result,” she said. “The plain-talking Northerner, in some cases, does triumph.”
Ms Raw said that the problem is that some young people, regardless of where they come from, lack the clarity of speech, the projection, and the talent for structuring an argument necessary to be successful.
She agreed with Ms Earnshaw that much more needs to be done to improve school pupils’ speaking skills, but Dr Edwards argued that universities need policies in place, too, to prevent discrimination.