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WHEN I was first accepted for a place at Durham University in 2017 as a mature student, I remember my college tutor congratulating me on my offer but also saying: “I think you will find it hard studying at Durham.”
I did not quite understand what he meant. Now I do, and he was not wrong.
I recall feeling like a fish out of water from the start, not only because I was a mature student but because I was a working-class student from north-east England.
I recall the attitudes of younger, mainly southern, students looking down their noses at me as if I were somehow less deserving than them.
It was difficult, but I avoided some of the problems that many other working-class students would have had as I took very little part in the social element of university.
My first real wake-up call was a scandal surrounding Durham students organising a miners’ strike-themed event recreating the struggle that took place between miners and the police.
Guests were to attend either dressed as a miner or police officer, which was a disgusting attempt at belittling and ridiculing the working-class struggles and great suffering the communities in Durham have faced.
This sent shockwaves through the Durham community, within the same town that the world-famous Durham Miners’ Gala takes place to celebrate the achievements of the working class.
It was argued at the time that there needed to be a new programme of education developed within the university to ensure that such tasteless events were prevented in the future. Two years on and what has that achieved? Nothing.
Last week a fresh scandal hit Durham University. A freshers’ online chat was leaked into the public domain, exposing again how posh male students regard local lasses.
The chat named “Durham Boys Making all the Noise” referred to girls as conquests, playthings to become the subject of challenges and competitions.
These chats involved many worrying conversations including talk of getting girls drunk and insinuations that those that have claimed rape in the past are just “whores” who changed their minds.
One chat talked of a challenge between the posh boys to have sex with the “poorest student.”
The students they are talking about here are local working-class women, who these lads clearly see as fair targets in their sick little games.
What I find even more worrying is the number of people who tried to brush off the comments as “lads being lads” or just banter.
Many have called for the expulsion of those involved in the chat, saying that there is no place at Durham University for attitudes such as these.
I would be inclined to agree, but there is a deeper problem with this.
If Durham went down the road of mere expulsion then they are simply washing their hands of the problem and refusing to deal with the root cause, like they did with the miners’ strike event.
What does this say to the people who were targeted as potential victims, what does it say to the working-class students about how Durham University values them?
There are two issues here: first, the misogynistic attitudes that are still rife in society, and second, problems within elite educational institutions, such as universities, of class privilege.
It is clearly evident that many students at Durham see themselves as superior to others, the idea that they are somehow better people based on their backgrounds and privilege. And outdated patriarchal values are still being instilled in young men from a very young age.
I’d argue that this is a result of the public-school mentality that still exists to divide society into the haves and have-nots.
And the results of this are being played out in dangerous games that could result in disastrous consequences for both them and the people they prey upon.
I am very much in favour of making misogynistic behaviour against women a hate crime, however in this case we are then punishing young men for the way in which society has allowed them to be brought up.
The way that society has normalised this kind of behaviour towards women and girls is the root problem here, and this is what needs to be challenged.
And we need to recognise the role of class status: the students weren’t just preying on girls — but “poor girls.”
There is obviously an idea that working-class lasses are “loose” and lack moral values and are therefore an easy target to get into bed.
But can you blame the students for thinking this?
They are constantly fed this narrative by the mainstream media, reality TV shows such as Geordie Shore.
Northern lasses get a fair amount of stick from the press, from what they wear on nights out, to how many kids they have. They are portrayed as somehow more game than other women and for that reason less deserving of respect.
Working-class women have been fighting these stereotypes for many years — but what is being done to challenge these ideas?
This narrative potentially makes the university culture a very dangerous place for our local working-class lasses, so what are university management going to do about this, how are they going to put it right?
They can’t without accepting that they are in part responsible for these outdated attitudes — their foundations are built on class inequality.
Universities like Durham have always been places of power and privilege. The very teaching upholds this notion and has become subject to criticism, with student-led campaigns calling for the decolonisation of the curriculum.
Although work on this has started, it is very much focused on the notion of “white privilege” rather than the real deep-rooted problem of “class privilege.”
Is it has been recognised that the Level One module at Durham “Democratic political systems” is Western-centric, and focuses entirely on political systems in Britain and the US. In its teachings the module includes only the questions and answers that uphold the systems of power based on class, race and gender.
But the problems at Durham lie deeper than its curriculum. The target for British university admissions from state schools is a mere 60 per cent, a target that Durham narrowly achieves — although at one point it stood at only 54.6 per cent.
Durham has one of the least diverse student bodies in Britain.
This has been challenged in the past. When a campaign was launched in 2016 for Durham to work to the acceptable target of 75 per cent intake from state schools, the university pushed back against this, claiming that it would result in lowering its entry requirements, which would in turn affect its league table position and its prestige status.
Surely, when 93 per cent of students in the UK currently attend state schools, then the university admissions must be adapted to make university more attainable?
Even if a student is “lucky” enough to receive an offer from Durham, the chances of them being able to afford it is unlikely.
With the accommodation fees being some of the highest in the country, it is obvious who the university caters for, with many working-class students outpriced.
Durham is historically a working-class area, yet with only 14.2 per cent of its students being working class and 6.8 per cent from deprived areas, it makes one question the purpose of the university — is it there to teach and develop students in their education and knowledge, or is it just a processing point for those already fine-tuned students to continue producing first-class results?
As it stands, Durham University could be considered nothing more than a white, middle- (and upper-) class southern colony in the north of England that does little to provide an education for its own young population.
Dr Lisa Mckenzie, a lecturer in sociology at Durham, recently wrote: “I used to push working-class kids to go to university, but no longer: they are toxic institutions of prejudice.”
Given recent events at Durham it is hard to argue this.
The majority of students at Durham consider themselves of a higher status than the local working-class students and the university, with its current and past admissions record and extortionate fees, embolden this attitude.
To address the huge issues at Durham — evident in the events of the last week and the sheer disregard for working-class students — the university needs to recognise that it is part of this problem.
It could start to remedy these issues by backing campaigns to make misogyny against women a hate crime. But to really resolve matters it must take immediate action to address the poor admissions record and ensure it sets an example to others across Britain by putting student opportunity, education and well-being above the quest to be seen as “prestigious.”
The status of our educational institutions should not be judged on achieving the best results by reproducing those already attaining them based on their class privilege, but celebrating the results of those who have worked the hardest for their achievements. This, for me, would be evidence of a “world-leading university.”
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