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Tackling Elitism: Focusing on classist struggles at university

ByShin Woo Kim

Oct 24, 2019

In October, Vice President Welfare Oona Miller’s launched the Tackling Elitism project, a means to challenge ‘elitism’ at the University of Edinburgh through creating a network of students who can advise on changes in university policies that affect people from various disadvantaged backgrounds. 

The project’s first meetup was on Tuesday 1 October in Teviot Lounge Bar.

The event began with Miller handing out inclusive drinking vouchers to make drinks accessible to students with a low income, and to ensure students who don’t drink alcohol had the option of soft drinks as well.

In her opening speech, she reinforced what was on the Facebook description for the event; the day was for “students from low-income backgrounds, students who are working class, students who are the first generation of their family to go to university, who are estranged, or who are care-experienced [to] come together to meet, share experiences, and appreciate and build the capacity to organise themselves to make changes on the issues that they think are important and enrich their experiences, crucially to disrupt the status quo that many British universities are stuck in.”

Stating that “it can’t be me that leads it, I’ve got to facilitate this but it’s not for me, it’s hopefully for you,” she invited two speakers from disadvantaged backgrounds to the stage. 

Recent History graduate at the university, Lauren, stated that Classics is “all about elitism,” that it’s an “enclosed space, [a] system of people who’ve gone to private schools and have come already knowing Latin […] they already studied the classics, I did not, [as] I come from a very different background.” She expanded on her background by explaining that: she was a mature student who entered university through a full-time access course; she and her sister were the first people in her family to go to university, and she has what she calls a ‘limb difference.’

She said that it’s important to discuss changes to the running of the university, such as changing the exam-based marking system and increasing internship pay. She concluded with: “It’s not about money at the end of the day, it’s about coming together and all accepting that we want to change, be accessible, and for everyone to have a seat at the table, and hopefully we can move forward.”

James Mooney, the university’s Centre for Open Learning staff, was also an access student who went onto study Philosophy at the university. He explained that his later-than-average decision to enter university was because no one in his peer group and family expected him to go, as they themselves hadn’t gone to university. As Centre for Open Learning staff, he helped to set up the university’s part-time access course, which launched last year, aiming to present people with the “skills, qualifications, and importantly the confidence that they need to get into [university].”

For successful access entrants to university, he was concerned that the one-year ‘battle’ of the access course turned into an “uphill battle” at university. He reinstated Lauren’s points about ‘the playing field’ not being “even […] some people will have to work far harder in so many ways: Financially, with employment to supplement their studies; Gaining that cultural capital, that other people just have, because of their parents, or the school that they went to.”

He stated that the university expects students to be equipped with a certain set of knowledge, which “not everyone has” and is a product of “growing up, being taken into galleries, and being taken around the world on expensive holidays.” He praised Miller for this ‘widening participation’ strategy that “provides access to people who might not have the opportunity.”

He warned that the opportunity must be maximised by “continuing to give [people] the stepping stone, that helping hand up.” He emphasised the university needs a student voice because “researching inequality is not the same as experiencing it”, and that “university staff are trying really hard and really care, but they don’t always get it right, and in order us to better, we really […] need you to tell us what it is that you don’t like, what it is you don’t want.” He stated that any observed “unfair or elitist” attitude must be called out the same way that “we expect any other forms of discrimination to be called out.” He ended his speech, hoping that the project will “work really well […]”, and emphasised that it’s important to continue student “participation and how widely you share all of this.”

Following the talks, attendants were encouraged to have a group discussion, using prompts that read: ‘Have your friends ever made assumptions about how much money you have to spend?’ and ‘What were your impressions of the University of Edinburgh when you applied to study here?’

A mailing list was taken to keep participants updated with further Tackling Elitism events, and anyone wishing to participate can also subscribe to this list by emailing vpwelfare@eusa.ed.ac.uk.

A follow-up meetup will be held on Wednesday 23 October 5 pm at Teviot Middle Reading Room. 


Image: Shinwoo Kim

By Shin Woo Kim

Editor-in-Chief Shinwoo (they/them) is a former News Editor. They identify as a Marxist-Leninist, and have written for Voices, News and Opinion and more recently for TV & Film.

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