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The double-edged sword of social mobility at university

Students from working-class backgrounds who have gained entry into elite universities need a little more support to feel accepted, writes Emily Clark

Emily Clark's avatar

Emily Clark

March 5 2020
Durham students


As a working-class female student from a large industrial town in the north of England, I came from an educational environment that did not really expect or prepare me to climb the social ladder. Consequently, when I got accepted into an elite Russell Group university, I was never really prepared for the loss of my identity, or the loss of a sense of home and place as I attempted to find my feet in the environment of higher education.

From the beginning, it felt like there were demands imposed on me that I wasn’t used to. While I had a lot of freedom at home, at university I had to attend specific mealtimes every day. I also had a roommate.

There were a number of unspoken rules and a specific social etiquette that we had to follow. At my college, it was often justified as a way to improve the confidence and resilience of all students. However, for students like myself, it felt like an attempt to integrate working-class individuals into a middle-class way of life, something at which I failed massively.

For example, when I first arrived at my college, a staff member asked me what I was “reading”. I now know that they were asking me which subject I was studying, but because of my background and lack of prior knowledge about higher education, I was confused at the time. The college really wanted students to engage in intellectual conversations that used this type of exclusive language, but I found the etiquette surrounding these conversations really strange.

By unspoken rules, I also mean the rules we had to follow during “formal” dinners; for example, standing up when the high table enter the room, saying grace in Latin, and a number of other elite practices. The social etiquette we had to follow during these dinners was strange for me too; even the way you held your knife and fork was taken into account.

I often felt socially excluded and this led me to take a back seat in all aspects of my academic life. I was engulfed by imposter syndrome and I became increasingly aware of a culture clash between myself and my private-schooled peers. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of them were polite, friendly and nice. But there are only so many things you can talk about with people who do not share similar interests. They were as unfamiliar to me as I probably was to them.

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Sometimes it was little things, like not laughing at the jokes I found funny, or not having things in common, such as holiday destinations, school experiences, or fashion. Other times, it was outright forms of exclusion: sitting on my own at dinner time and being ignored when I spoke, eyebrows raised when I spoke in my northern accent.

I loved drama and music at school, but when I arrived at university, I noticed that the majority of the drama and music societies consisted of popular, middle-class students (many of whom had attended drama schools or chorister schools already). I did not even turn up to auditions because it felt pointless. 

I have always been the quietest student in my tutorials and seminars. Anything I contribute feels far less eloquent than what my peers say. Often, I joke to my friends that I am much “smarter on paper” than I am in person. However, this probably comes from a feeling of deep-rooted inadequacy, something that affected me when I first arrived at university and continues to affect me now.

Therefore, I think it has become all too easy to overlook the complex identities of high-attaining working-class young people who are forced to leave the environment in which their identities were formed. Even though I have always been considered to have academic potential, I could not help but feel a strong sense of failure during my first year at university. I think it came from feeling like an outcast on the inside.

As a result, efforts to improve social mobility are futile until we recognise the serious emotional consequences that higher education can have on working-class students, even when social mobility is desired. If we refuse to consider these consequences, we risk denying whole sections of the working class the full experience of higher education.

Read more: From a waiter working in Singapore to becoming a Harvard graduate

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