Ben Hayward October 26th
2020

Universities need to act to eradicate discrimination against working-class students, which includes the mocking of regional accents, equality campaigners say. 

Following a Guardian investigation, widescale issues have come to light with students at some of the UK’s top universities revealing they’ve been discriminated against and on occasion ridiculed by both staff and students over their accents and backgrounds.

Speaking to the Guardian, a number of both current and former students reported bullying and harassment over their accents and working-class backgrounds, with some saying their academic ability was questioned because of their background.

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC), which monitors progress in improving social mobility in the UK, said the situation is unacceptable in a week that has also seen reports of ‘toxic attitudes’ towards northern students at Durham University - the same institute that last month uncovered a competition among wealthy prospective students to have sex with the ‘poorest student they could find’.

Sammy Wright, the lead commissioner on schools and higher education for the SMC, said they had spent 18 months examining the differing chances for young people based on where they come from.

He said: “We found an entrenched pattern in certain areas where social mobility is very low, and often the only way to grasp opportunities involved moving away from where they were brought up.

“We also found that social and economic disadvantage often hampered any chance to move out. Accent is a part of this, alongside cultural capital and social networks.”

The Sutton Trust, a charity helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education, called on universities to do more to ensure an inclusive and supportive environment for all undergraduates.

The trust’s founder and chair, Sir Peter Lampl, said: “It’s really tough for young people from low-income backgrounds to get into top universities. For this and for other reasons, it’s completely unacceptable that they are discriminated against while they’re there.”

Sara Khan, a vice-president of the National Union of Students, said working-class students were sold a “myth of meritocracy”, but in some cases the reality was starkly different.

“As long as working-class students have to pay for education, work alongside their studies to cover basic necessities, and are saddled with debt for the rest of their lives, higher education will never be a welcoming environment for them,” she said. 

“It is unfortunately inevitable that in a system like this, such students would face prejudice and harassment, which is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the classism in our education system.”

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