Illustration by Eliott Rose
When I first thought of the idea to write a column on the issue of class and classism at the university, I was brimming with ideas for topics which I wanted to delve into. Yet I soon found myself plagued by an unshakeable feeling: no matter what I end up writing, it won’t make any real difference. So why bother?
Oxford is an institution which has been in large part reserved for a small, elite minority of the population, and it can be difficult at times to square that with the decision I made as an 18-year-old to attend this university. Whilst I commend recent efforts to increase access through UNIQ, Target Oxbridge, foundation year programmes and contextual admissions, I couldn’t help but sense that they were an indictment of how much work Oxford still had to do in order to tackle its endemic inequalities. Perhaps it would have been easier and felt more natural to attend a university which had a better track record of progressivism and inclusion of people like me, but instead I went to a place which I knew could be a…challenge.
Nevertheless, when considering the glacial pace at which Oxford changes, and how often I encounter incidents of ignorance, it can feel as if I’m shouting at a brick wall. I have sadly observed that people will often lack the lived experience and perspective beyond their privileged world, and thus lack both the inclination and the ability to contribute to earnest discussions about the role of class and prevalence of classism here. Broadly speaking, I also sense as a result that class is rarely considered in the whole when it comes to improving everyday experiences here; students will clamour to take part in outreach initiatives for the university for students from underrepresented backgrounds (and undoubtedly that is a good thing), but when it comes to transferring that energy to the context of their peers at university, there can be a perceptible cognitive dissonance. Caring about class equality requires the effort of self-reflection 24/7; caring about less privileged students at an arm’s length only really isn’t good enough.
And so we come to this article itself. A lot of the people who can relate to what I hope to write about – it isn’t just me, remember that – don’t need me to explain their lived experiences to them. Yet on the other hand, I know that the majority of people at Oxford won’t be able to relate, and thus may feel no compulsion to explore these ideas. I acknowledge that it thus seems futile to go ahead and write a column when I appear to be so pessimistic about the prospective audience, yet clearly I have chosen to persevere. Why? Because I don’t want to have spent my three undergraduate years here having not made the effort to at least try to change things. I feel very lucky to have been able to study here, and I certainly don’t want to let any opportunity to try to change things for the better slip by. Compared to some people who have had generations of family members attend the same college, let alone Oxford, neither of my parents went to university – I occasionally find myself flinching when others appropriate the idea of first-gen students to mean first-gen Oxbridge students – and thus I feel that it is incumbent upon me to not draw the ladder up from those behind me.
A few months ago I was elected the co-chair of the SU’s Class Act Campaign, and since then one of the things which I have been endeavouring to do is to put the issue of class on the agenda. I have spent the past two years watching some brilliant activists fight to raise consciousness and enact change on vital issues such as gender equality, trans rights and anti-racism here (not to mention those who have preceded me at Class Act), but I have also seen how antipathy and ignorance on the part of a silent majority can be one of the greatest barriers to change. Finding a like-minded support group of driven people is one thing, but working out how to reach the masses of our peers is another brainache altogether. It’s a depressing thought that there are swathes of people, both inside and outside of this old place, who don’t care. I guess all I can do in the first instance is explain why they should care.
I don’t intend to sound pompous in any of this. At the end of the day, I’m just some little big-mouthed student posting some ill-structured thoughts on a website. It’s hardly going to change the world. But if one or two people come up to me and tell me that something I wrote comforted them or changed their minds, then that’s one small step up on the seemingly insurmountable mountain.