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The Illusion of Progress: Being Working Class at the University of Edinburgh

Writing: Erin Lynch

Within recent years, there seems to be a marked and noticed effort to improve access of working-class students to Russell Group universities across the UK. I believe myself to have directly benefited from these efforts, through receiving financial support and engaging in access schemes designed for students from low progression areas. Although this looks very promising, the work isn’t over as soon as working-class kids enter in to elite institutions. Instead, we are faced with the task of operating and navigating a culture that is unfamiliar and isolating.

Before I continue, I acknowledge that as a straight white woman I undeniably have a massive amount of privilege within university and UK culture. I am able to navigate university culture with relative ease based on my appearance. I’m not trying to discredit that. Yet the conversation about class is still an important one to be had.

Across the UK, statistics have shown that white working-class students make up on average 20% of the university population. More than half of UK universities have less than 5% of students who were eligible for free school meals, and fewer than 20% of these universities have schemes targeted towards accessibility for this group (1). Consequently, there is a sense of disillusionment that comes from being surrounded by voices privileged in their social, educational and cultural capital.

This difference in cultural capital serves as a gatekeeper in establishing connections within certain groups. Furthermore, this gatekeeping allows, especially in creative industries, a flooding of the voices of privilege. According to Creative London, only 2.7% of those working in UK galleries identify as working class (2), and less than 13% work in publishing (3).

These cultural experiences also affect more than the ability to network and fit in to the community, but also academic progression. Because I study a humanities subject, there is a large amount of presupposed knowledge that is unavailable. For example, I had to write my first essay on the Renaissance poem ‘Paradise Lost’, having never heard of it before. While someone in my tutorial group announced that she wasn’t nervous because her dad had written his PhD on it, so could just send her essay over to him to check on it first.

Ultimately, the idea that progress has been made within elite UK institutions simply by admitting working class students misses the need for more to be done when low progression students enter into an upper-class culture that we feel we’re trespassing in.

Image: via Wikimedia


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