Classism, Elitist Microaggressions, and Alienation: Scottish Students at the University of Edinburgh

Writing by Tackling Elitism (Daniel Geen, Lauren Galligan, and Eve Simpson). Illustration by Dani Rothmann.


Tackling Elitism is a group for UoE students who are from a low-income background, first-generation students, working class, estranged, and/or care experienced, and who are driven to tackle the persistent elitism which at times defines this University. Follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


This article discusses responses that were submitted by Scottish students at The University of Edinburgh regarding their experiences of classism, elitism or feelings of marginalisation based on their Scottish identity. The idea for this article emerged as a response to an article written for The Guardian that discussed issues of northern-English identities at northern universities as it was felt that similar issues faced Scottish students in Edinburgh.


Many of the student responses detail the ways in which their Scottish identity has led to varying magnitudes of elitist microaggressions, which are also occasionally entangled with sexist and/or racist comments. Microaggressions can be defined as ‘everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalised group membership’ (Sue et. al, 2019). ‘We become a novelty’ one respondent remarked, referring to the position of Scottish students, particularly those from state schools, in Edinburgh’s student population. This position of Scottish students results in a power dynamic in which majority groups, ‘posh’ and/or privately educated students – as mentioned in student responses – feel entitled to immediately disregard and belittle Scottish students for their accent or their hometown/city.


Nearly all respondents raised experiences of (micro)aggressions that they faced as a result of their Scottish accent, which, although not necessarily an instance of elitist discrimination, there remain striking parallels between the two. This follows as a result of harmful stereotypes of Scotland as ‘uncivilised’, ‘scummy’ or ‘crime-infested’ that as student’s assert, result in their being classed in the eyes of their non-Scottish peers. This is most explicit in a response from a ‘comfortably middle-class’ Scottish student who felt the weight of these stereotypes, resulting in a simultaneous mixture of being disregarded whilst also being subjected to ‘hyper-attention’, as if their peers were waiting for them to ‘slip-up’ whilst speaking in a seminar. Here, what is notable is the ways in which elitist assumptions about Scottish identity are projected back onto Scottish students as their position in the student populous results in a persistent feeling of difference and alienation. This feeling of alienation is salient in those responses of working-class or socio-economically disadvantaged Scottish students.


Such harmful stereotypes are not only an issue within academic contexts but regularly punctuate Scottish student’s social lives. Students that referenced their working-class background were often seen as stupid and used for comedic value by other students. One working-class student felt they were seen as ‘lesser’ because of their Glaswegian accent, with another being told they ‘speak gibberish’ and sounded ‘funny’. Another student from the Scottish borders described feeling alienated from peers who spoke in ‘posh’ accents, contributing to the impostor syndrome they felt in their first year, which ultimately led to them dropping out of Edinburgh. Working-class students with Scottish accents are often actively mocked, perceived as objects of fascination, with one student being asked to ‘repeat certain phrases and words over and over so that they could mimic my accent’. This trend is common, with another student saying: ‘I come from a poorer area in the West of Scotland, and I have a thick accent and use lots of slang. It makes me feel so uncomfortable and they all just kinda laugh at the way I speak and don’t actually listen to what I’m saying, asking me to say different words.’ Such ridicule is inherently entangled with elitism and usually stems from students with received pronunciation, a luxury typically afforded to grammar or privately educated students, who conflate this with intelligence and social worth.


Therefore, having a Scottish accent generally leads to feelings of isolation amongst Scottish students. Yet, Scottish students with accents from low socio-economic backgrounds seem to experience more active forms of discrimination than those who did not reference their socio-economic status: ‘add to our Scottish accents our working-class backgrounds and we became a rare relic in Scotland’s own capital city.’


The pervasiveness and power of such elitist assumptions of Scottish identity is evidenced throughout student responses; not only are these assumptions classed but they are also racialised. BAME Scottish students have detailed the (micro)aggressions they have faced as a result of harmful stereotypes that ‘whitewash’ Scottish identity, which in turn has resulted in BAME Scottish students having their ‘Scottishness’ questioned or denied. That privileged students at this university feel entitled to question or belittle another student’s national identity on too many instances makes emphatic the hierarchies such students continually impose, however unintentionally this may be.


Many of the preconceptions about Scottish students at Edinburgh University originate from misunderstanding and a lack of self-awareness on the part of English students in particular. This is evident in many of the contributions which touch on the feelings of exclusion as a result of a general unfamiliarity with the Scottish system of education and the structures of grading, which often leads to a dismissal of any grades which do not fit the A-level system and sometimes even evoke claims that they ‘don’t count,’ or are lesser. According to the students who contributed, there is a general consensus that Scottish students are often made to feel inferior, with phrases like ‘you only got in because you are Scottish’ implying they are less deserving of a place at the university or did not try as hard as their non-Scottish peers to get in. On top of this, the resentment towards Scottish students seems to have a great deal to do with the difference between fees, which is manifesting itself into a general undermining of Scottish students’ potential and their right to be at the University of Edinburgh.


These preconceptions about Scottish students and their admission to university seem to be tied in significantly with prejudices about areas in Scotland more generally. From many of the contributions, it is clear that there is a harmful consensus amongst classist students about Glasgow in particular, with many of the prejudices stemming from ideas about crime rates and class structures, with working-class Glaswegian students feeling particularly alienated. These elitist stereotypes and prejudices result in further difficulties for Scottish students who are made to feel as though they must legitimise their place at the university.


Whilst the experiences of Scottish students can not be homogenised, our campaign has sought to highlight general trends of classism and elitism prevalent within academic and social settings at The University of Edinburgh. The aim of this campaign was to give a platform and visibility to issues faced by Scottish students at a Scottish university, as well as highlighting the intersections of class, race and national identity. Hopefully, with greater awareness of the variety of negative experiences facing Scottish students our campaign can work to expose and challenge harmful stereotypes and prejudices.


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