Town vs. gown: Durham University students appear on Socialist Think Tank Event to discuss classism in the university

In March, we reported on how Durham University sociology students had penned an open letter to the sociology department, seeking change regarding the classism they had faced at university. Since then, students have appeared on a livestream event organised by the Socialist Think Tank where they discussed classism and elitism in Durham University.

Students Lucy Milburn, Jack Lines, Kelsi Leigh Wright, Jamie Haliwell and Aoifke Madeleine discussed their experiences as working-class students on the livestream event which took place on April 15th. Third year student Jack Lines detailed a time where a fellow student had asked to sleep with him during freshers’ week as it would be “charity work” and she had a “poverty fetish” as well as having a seminar tutor mocking his northern accent during a class with fifty other students, who laughed along with the tutor. These experiences were echoed by Aoifke Madeleine who spoke of the hostility she had faced when she told other students of the contextual offers she had gained due to her background as well as the prejudice she faced during the seminars as a result of her accent and her lack of ‘cultural capital’.

Concerns were also raised about the costs of formals, not only for the formals themselves but the cost of gowns which are required at various Durham colleges, JCR levies, rent and student fees which can effectively exclude working-class students who may not have the ability to pay for such things. In addition, Jamie Haliwell expressed how apparent the ‘town vs. gown’ issue was with fellow students telling him he shouldn’t worry about having a part-time job as the “locals do those”. He also spoke of students avoiding Saturday night “locals’ night” at the bars, which students actively tried to avoid due to the presence of locals.

The issue of employment was particularly prevalent with all participants facing some form of prejudice due to their part-time employment with other students not understanding their need to earn money alongside their university degree. Jack Lines even expressed how someone from his college had circulated a photo of him at work on social media, which was used to mock him.

One of the key issues raised was the inability to report incidents of classism at the university. Jack Lines remarked that these issues should now be treated with the same severity as issues of racism aas the University have now incorporated ‘background’ as a protected characteristic within the student pledge. However, incidents of classism remain hard to report. This is one of the issues these students are hoping to change with the implementation of more student representatives who are approachable in these instances. They also aim to promote the First Generation Scholars group more as a resource for students who may be struggling adjusting to university life whether that be academically or socially in addition to promoting the stories of working-class lecturers to show that working-class and northern people have a place at Durham.

However, they recognise that a lot of this change is contingent on Durham actually acknowledging and recognising that there is a severe problem at Durham University. They hope that this will lead to the university working with students to implement change.

The event aimed to spread awareness of the treatment of northern and working-class Durham University students, which it certainly did. The livestream chat was extremely supportive of the students involved with many expressing that they were not entirely surprised this was the culture at Durham, with one person remarking they thought the situation may have changed since their experience in the 2000s. However, the event was targeted by trolls, which arguably proves the mountain that these students are trying to climb in order to make changes.

Speaking of the event, Lucy Milburn said:

I’m really overwhelmed with how positive the outcomes have been, I really could not have asked for more support from fellow students and from the sociology department. I have no doubt in my mind that Durham University is changing for the better, and that northern or working-class students will begin to feel welcome in these spaces. This will always be something I am passionate about, and I won’t stop until enough has been accomplished – it is so relieving to know that other students feel the same. My main aim with this was always to make these students feel heard and cared about, which from what I’ve been told, has begun to be achieved. A long structural process is ahead, but it is possible.”

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