Durham sociology students sign an open letter on the treatment of northern and working-class students

Photo: Scott Hewitt via Unsplash

Students from Durham University’s sociology department have taken it upon themselves to write an open letter to the university, addressing concerns about the treatment of northern and working-class students.

Such concerns were initially raised in fellow student Lauren White’s ‘A Report on Northern Student Experience at Durham University’ which compiled not only her own but countless other students’ negative experiences whilst at university. These ranged from the mocking of northern accents to being the butt of jokes about coal mining as well as overhearing peers bragging about ‘rolling in the muck’ meaning sleeping with a northern working-class person.

These thoughts and feelings resonated with second year criminology student Lucy Milburn, alongside other sociology students who have since created an open letter to the sociology department highlighting what was wrong and suggested possible changes. This letter has gained over 100 signatures from both staff and students.

Since then, Lucy and the other year two social science reps have conducted meetings with sociology’s head of department Catherine Donovan and Will Craige, director of education for the department, as well Kelly Johnson who is Durham’s equality leader. These meetings have led to the development of several ideas to help promote the inclusion and belonging of northern and working-class students in Durham, including:

– For the department to meet with working-class writers and to promote their voices via seminars and guest lectures in order to create visibility

– Ask (mainly northern and working-class) lecturers to volunteer to conduct student interviews so students are able to discuss their pathway into higher education with someone who can relate – this would ideally be visible upon the Durham University website for prospective students

– First Generation Scholars group to clarify what they mean and who they can welcome as well as widening visibility (not every working-class background means you are a first generation scholar, for example)

– Sociology modules developed to focus on the ‘North East in a global context’ and how it is changed in response to globalisation so that Durham’s rich culture can be explored and understood further

– Active bystander to be embedded into freshers’ week with classism involved alongside other important issues e.g. sexual harassment, homophobia, ableism, racism, etc.

Lucy, speaking exclusively to The Bubble, has said that, whilst all of these motions amongst others are still in talks, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and staff are passionate about making these suggestions a reality. She also stated:

“For me personally, being a student at Durham University has instead proved difficult rather than something I should be proud and joyous about. The culture ingrained within elitist institutions such as this one, is something that can be really damaging to working class students – and the northern accent does not help this.”

Speaking of her own experiences, which are typical of many northern working class students: “In freshers week, I was met with comments surrounding my accent and asked if it felt weird that the waiters at formals had the same accent as me – safe to say that was the first AND last formal I ever attended. As well as being met with shock and invasive questioning as to why I had a part time job, my fellow students suggested I do not continue with this.

“This continued into second year but in subtler ways: speaking over me in seminars, not listening to what I had to say, sniggering at my accent. To me, it became a type of imposter syndrome, figuring out a town vs gown identity and whether I was a legitimate student here. Sometimes it felt like I was leaving my working class background behind, in order to fit in, and this really created an identity crisis for me as I am proud of my working class heritage – but this is not something that is rewarded at Durham University at the moment.”

She also made it clear in her statement that none of this discussion regarding the experience of northern and working-class students is intended to be “an attack on middle and upper class students, or southern students at all” and instead:

“…we just need to recognise that working class and northern students face hardships that others do not. I am hoping that the changes that have been discussed in the department create a long lasting impact, and ultimately spread university wide; this is an initiative which should go beyond my graduation and one which future students like myself can take control of. It will take a while, but I do think that this, paired with students of this background finding their voice, is the start of a big change in culture for Durham University.”

Lucy would also like to add that, if anyone has ever had similar experiences to her, that they are free to email her at lucy.milburn-greenwood@durham.ac.uk for a chat or to propose any suggestions to be brought to staff.

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