The Student
Skiing, Shooting, Signet Rings: Class Divide at the University of Edinburgh

Only 6% of people in the UK are privately educated, yet somehow, they all seem to end up at the University of Edinburgh, making up 33.8% of the undergraduate population. The disproportionate split between private school and state school students demonstrates the depth of class divide at our university and its subsequent existence as an elitist institution, perpetuating the perception of higher education as a finishing school for the middle and upper classes.

Class divide on campus is evident from the moment students move into halls in first year, with the infamous inhabitants of Pollock forming a self-selecting population from day one. The disparity between the cost of a single room in Pollock’s Holland House, and a shared room in the university’s cheapest halls is an astounding £5771. Such an amount would perhaps let you fit in amongst this crowd, covering four years of attendance at the university’s annual ski trip, active membership in one of the prestigious sports teams, entry to Jujus every Monday for the whole of undergrad as well as leaving you with a breezy grand spare to spend on Glens and Grey Goose.

Within the first weeks of first year, class differences are emphasised socially and academically at the Freshers sports fair and through students first taste of tutorials. The social capital of the student body is emphasised at the fair through the variety of clubs available to join, from Rifle Club to Gliding, the cost of which render them inaccessible and alienating to students with no prior experience or expectation of accessing them as part of everyday life.

These differences, combined with the university’s existence as a wealthy institution, is emphasised academically in tutorials where “born-to-lead” private school students sporting signet rings dominate discussions. These students have been trained throughout their education to feel comfortable and confident in expressing and defending their opinions – a training that comprehensive students lacking such pre-destiny do not obtain in their classrooms of 25+ students.

Despite the fact that students at the University of Edinburgh are all academically matched (all having met the same entrance criteria) and even though academics is not a strict measure of intelligence, ability or potential, tutorials can at first be daunting spaces. They can leave state school students questioning their ability and intelligence, triggering imposter syndrome and undermining many students’ confidence and sense of belonging at the university.

These differences are only perpetuated throughout the four-year experience at Edinburgh, as state school students have a fundamentally different experience to private school students. For example, having to work alongside studying and not having parental income to fall back on. The difference in opportunity and experience is perhaps most clearly seen through Edinburgh’s Year Abroad scheme which is advertised as being accessible to all. However, like many of the opportunities available at Edinburgh, this is only available if you have the cold hard cash to throw down, as depressingly few schemes have funding or bursaries available. If, for example, you want to study in the USA, before you can get a visa you must prove you have access to funds exceeding £21k – an impossible feat for many students who do not have the financial support of their parents.

Although the University of Edinburgh has taken some meaningful steps towards reducing the class divide on campus through their Widening Participation schemes, they are not doing enough once students are actually enrolled at the university. Reduced entry requirements based on contextualised socio-economic data and outreach summer school programmes are a good start and demystify the institution, but if our university wants to provide an environment in which all students can thrive and reach their full potential, regardless of their economic background, they need to start putting their money where their mouth is. Access to higher education doesn’t mean fulfilling a quota, it means access to all the experiences and opportunities which come with attendance of an elite university, be that through academic, personal or professional development.

In the short term, the university should provide additional support and funding for state school and working class students, particularly in their first year of study, to enable full participation in university life, be that academic, personal or professional.

Tutorial sizes should be smaller with a focus on independent group work outside of class to build confidence and enable freer discussion in class time. In first year, participation grades should be scrapped to prevent individuals dominating conversations for participation points.

There should be a greater focus on professional development to ensure that state school students know of, and are actively applying for internships, work experience and voluntary placements, so come graduation students are on par with their privately educated peers who have been taking part in internship programmes every summer since they were sixteen. This should come in the form of mandatory presentations and workshops and annual meetings with careers advisors to track progress and ensure that every student is on the same page.

At the crux of it there needs to be more funding. Accommodation for low income students should be subsidised, particularly in first year. Bursaries should specifically be available for low income students to enable the year abroad programme to be a viable option rather than a privilege reserved for the elite – especially in the wake of Brexit and the uncertainty surrounding the Erasmus program.

However, these are fundamentally short-term measures which only focus on current and incoming students across the next decade. If the University of Edinburgh truly wants to reduce the class divide on campus for future generations of students, issues of accessibility need to be addressed through programmes of direct engagement with primary and secondary state schools which should make it clear that the university is committed to shedding its elitist image and admitting students of academic excellence from whatever their background.

The appointment of a Working-Class liberation officer would merely be a bandage over systematic issues of elitism and classism, palming off the responsibility to the student body. If the University of Edinburgh wants to maintain its reputation as an inclusive institution which provides equal opportunity for students regardless of their socio-economic background, and if Peter Mathieson is serious about his desire “to make sure that we are not inaccessible to whole sections of society”, more funding, bursaries and subsidies should be available to state school students.

Ultimately, universities in the twenty-first century should be a reflection of society and a place of representation and debate, not just a microcosm of middle and upper class society and specifically not just as a finishing school for privately run secondary institutions.

Image: dun_deagh via Flickr