the logo

The choice between paying for student accommodation and a holiday in Dubai

The gap between rich and poor students can be a factor in mental health conditions. Katie King reflects on her time at a prestigious university among more well-off flatmates

  • Student finance
  • Student life
Katie King's avatar

Katie King

June 21 2018


Social class differences and money problems are both issues that have long affected university students. I dealt with these issues as an undergraduate and they have been widely reported in the media, sometimes in terms of explaining the increased rate of mental health problems among students. This has made me reflect on my time at a Russell Group university. 

I graduated from the University of Bristol in 2015. At that time, 40 per cent of Bristol’s student population was privately educated, putting it third in the country behind the University of Oxford (43 per cent) and the University of St Andrews (41 per cent). In comparison, 7 per cent of the entire population goes to private school.

Having taken part in a widening participation programme before enrolling at Bristol, I was not among the privately educated. But I wasn’t too concerned. My background, I thought, was just “normal”, so I didn’t have to worry about fitting in. 

Immediately on arriving at university, however, I did feel different. It was the huge wealth divide that struck me. Jennie*, a recent Bristol law graduate, also felt “out of place” among the university’s typically wealthy student population.

“Even just the places that they went to for lunch, and where they went on holiday. I wasn’t able to afford the latest clothes or continuously buy cocktails on nights out,” she says.

From a waiter working in Singapore to becoming a Harvard graduate
Do widening participation schemes work? Students share their stories
Dispelling the myths around elite universities
How can we fix the Oxbridge problem?
‘I did not think I stood a chance of competing with the students at Cambridge’

The divide goes beyond simple materialism and becomes part of all aspects of your social life at university. Trying to make friends with people who can knock back several rounds in the pub and make pricey, impulse purchases is not easy when your loan won’t cover accommodation costs.

Once, when my flat made the Cîroc-induced decision to plan a holiday to Dubai, I realised that my social position as the “I’ll come but I won’t spend any money” tag along was unstable.

Perhaps bonding over shared experiences would have moved me beyond the peripheries of the group but, unfortunately, I had zero hilarious boarding school stories.

“Ostracised” is the word that Bristol sociology graduate Annie* uses to describe her experience. “I had nothing in common with other students, so I stayed away from certain events,” she recalls.

For Daisy*, who read maths, a feeling of “them and me” influenced her experience of studying at Bristol. She says that “the quality of people’s education, and the way that their schools had approached maths and further maths in particular was very different to my experience”. Other schools were more interested in deepening knowledge of the subject, whereas Daisy’s was more concerned with pass rates. Richer students’ ability to pay for academic books and private tutors means that this educational disparity persists.

Connections had a big impact, too. I soon realised that my short work experience placements with local solicitors was not going to cut it compared with the law school students who’d interned at big-name firms and the in-house legal teams of large companies. When I asked how they had managed to land such great placements, the answer would usually be something along the lines of “My dad’s best friend is a partner at the firm.”

Daisy says: “It was incredibly frustrating and unfair that some students seemed to get placements – or were sure that they would get them in the future – through a single conversation with someone’s dad.”

Feeling disadvantaged can be a catalyst for hard work, but working hard to do well and “prove yourself” are two very different beasts. Studying intensely and working multiple jobs in an attempt to climb the ladder is exhausting.

*All names have been changed for privacy.

Read more: reflections from a University of Oxford foundation-year student

You may also like

The University of Oxford

Best universities in the UK 2023 - University Rankings

The University of Oxford is top in a list of the best universities in the UK 2023, which includes institutions in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland

October 12 2022
sticky sign up

Register free and enjoy extra benefits