Posted inSummer Editorial Series

Oxford’s Class Problem

Illustration by Leyla Baxman

In Oxford, class is rarely discussed. It’s a topic that we avoid where we can, assuming that because our admissions statistics are slowly improving, and we have a host of outreach programmes, the problem is solved. But that doesn’t mean that the issue isn’t lingering beneath the surface once you arrive here.

Beginning at Oxford

The issue starts in our schools. Students from working-class backgrounds are often discouraged from applying to Oxbridge. It’s out of reach; it’s a waste of money; it’s an elitist institution full of posh people who will ridicule and bully you until you pack up your things and get the first train home. But whilst Oxbridge is undeniably the stomping ground of the wealthy and powerful, that is no reason for someone like myself not to apply. We must infiltrate these places in order to change them.

There are some ways to make your time here more comfortable. Applying to a college with a higher proportion of state students, for example Mansfield, where 94% of their intake between 2017-2019 came from state schools, may make for a more pleasant experience. Similarly, at my own college, 83% of the 2020 intake were state educated students. In fact, this was one of the reasons that I applied to Worcester—I hoped I would fit in more and avoid the elitist horror stories that I had heard about Oxford. However, that bubble of security popped when I began interacting with students outside of my college.

‘Class makes you feel quite lonely in Oxford, even if you’re surrounded by other people’, one student told me. As a working-class student, you might join the Student Union’s campaign ‘Class Act’, or perhaps the 93% Club, aiming to meet others like yourself. You might even attend an event or two—if you’re as unlucky as I am, you might have been to one at The Oxford Union in Hilary 2022, when they had a double booking with the freemasons. Planning to meet fellow state schoolers, I was instead met by a horde of white-tie-clad old men who turned their noses up at the sight of me.

Interactions as a working-class student

I’ve been subjected to many comments about my class in Oxford. I’ve faced mockery of my northern hometown, with its high poverty levels. I’ve been teased for my accent more times than I can count. I’ve even been asked if I was offended that a student from an independent school had never been to Greggs. Of course, the fact that they had never had a cheap sausage roll must be deeply offensive to a poor northerner. Whilst some of these scenarios may simply be a result of ignorance, they serve as a constant reminder of people’s bigoted preconceptions of you.

For many privately educated students, these preconceptions stem from limited interaction with working-class people. ‘I grew up in a council estate […] but at Oxford I’ve had people tell me they thought that I was […] upper class because I dress nicely and speak nicely, and am confident in myself’, one student told me. ‘Why is confidence a class determiner? What do they want [working-class] people to look and act like?’ Another student told me that their ‘mum got treated really awfully by some snobby, classist parents once’, and now feels uncomfortable attending events hosted for parents by their college.

Even tutors don’t seem to understand that we can’t all speak Latin or that just because we’ve all reached Oxford, it doesn’t magically make the playing field even. Sorry to disappoint you, but I wasn’t reading Cicero in my cot as an infant. That doesn’t make me any less worthy of my place here.

Financial disparity

Financial struggles are prominent amongst working-class students, and can completely alter your experience at Oxford. Students from poorer backgrounds are constantly told how ‘lucky’ they are for getting higher maintenance loans, whilst watching their classmates travel to their holiday homes across the world. One student told me ‘realising that some people don’t need a job or don’t worry about money has been depressing’. This is especially prevalent at Oxford, where undergraduates are strongly discouraged from being employed during term time.

Many students don’t understand why some can’t splash out on balls that cost £250 (not including purchasing white-tie-suitable outfits), or go on lavish ski trips. Furthermore, while the £150 fines for ‘trashing’ which were instated earlier this year may be a small price for wealthier students to pay to celebrate the end of their exams, for working-class students, the tradition becomes inaccessible. Despite being criticised by the SU, who promote “Green Trashing”, the University did not acknowledge the classism of this decision.

What can we do?

Reading this article may have been disheartening—writing it certainly was. We often deceive ourselves about the progress at Oxford, or at least refrain from criticising it too heavily. Many of us are simply glad to have a place here.

But ignoring this issue will not bring change. This article barely skims the surface of why we need to start talking about class more openly at Oxford. Instead of slapping ‘access’ on every manifesto in student politics, we need to see evidence of real progress. When we hold diversity workshops for freshers, we must not neglect the discussion of class. Support for working-class students cannot end the moment that we arrive.