Does Exeter University have a class problem?
Following an interview with the 93% club, Maddy Hellard examines the class landscape at the University.
With a reputation as an oasis for Oxbridge rejects with poorly executed mullets, Exeter University is renowned as ‘Surrey-On-The-Sea’. Whilst it is not the 1900s, and the university is no longer reserved for those from wealthy backgrounds, I’m not sure that Exeter has received the memo. The clear ‘North-South’ divide amongst the student body also feeds into a stark disparity of students who were privately educated versus those who attended state schools. With a staggering 60% of the student body coming from privately educated backgrounds, compared to them accounting for just 7% nationally, it is clear that the University has some work to do.
This social class divide can be witnessed early on in a student’s journey at Exeter, most noticeably through preconceptions and biases surrounding University provided accommodation. The wide difference in price and quality of accommodation paves the way for prejudices to develop around the types of people living in the cheaper, objectively less impressive halls. Moreover, places like Holland Hall have gained a reputation as hot spots for ‘posh students’, furthering the divide as those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds choose to avoid residing there. It is important that the University seeks to create a culture that transcends social class status in order to ensure equal opportunity for success amongst students. This would involve levelling the quality and costs of accommodation with a focus on diversifying residents to prevent a relentless cycle of disadvantage continuing through higher education. Plus, Old Lafrowda is just begging to be refurbished.
As the cost of living crisis rages on, the University is under mounting pressure to ease its impact by supporting students financially.
As the cost of living crisis rages on, the University is under mounting pressure to ease its impact by supporting students financially. The crisis has only exacerbated the class disparities within Exeter and universities across the UK, with a report by the Sutton Trust finding that 1 in 4 university students nationally are likely to prematurely end their studies due to its impacts. So, what is the University doing about this?
Whilst there are some measures to protect those hardest hit, both recently implemented and long-standing, such as the Success For All Fund and the addition of ‘financial circumstances’ as mitigation for a self-cert extension, in practice, these do not go far enough. The process of applying for financial support can be seen as long and confusing, taking up to a month to be approved. Moreover, with the self-cert extensions now reduced to a mere 3 days, it is hard to see how a situation involving finances will resolve in such a short space of time (unless you happen to get your hands on some TP Wednesday tickets for resale).
However, there are some more noteworthy initiatives. The Access to Exeter Bursary provides vital extra funding for those from low-income backgrounds. Efforts have also been made to ensure students are no longer subject to leaving Pret £10 lighter and late to their lectures, as they can now grab a ‘nutritious meal deal’ for £2 on campus, following a student campaign. Moreover, free period products are available to collect from various locations around campus, in conjunction with Period Poverty Exeter. Perhaps the previous lack of initiatives is a direct result of the University catering to the majority. In theory, this may make sense, but when the majority is not representative of a wider society, it creates an extremely exclusive environment.
To echo Lilian (VP of the 93% club), the question of what can be done to improve these intense disparities ventures beyond the scope of the University itself. Class and wealth bias as an issue is something deeply ingrained into our society, meaning the root of the issue starts way before attendance at University. Of course, it is not to say those from privileged backgrounds are automatically guilty of perpetuating class bias or are discriminatory but rather concerns with the importance of recognition and acceptance of their privilege instead. It is to understand that some students will inevitably have to work a part-time job to support their studies. Understanding that asking ‘what school did you go to?’ will not always be followed by the name of an elite private school, and understanding that these factors do not make anyone less deserving of their place at university. After all, we have all ended up in the same place.
Why would a student wish to be in an environment that only emphasises and reminds them of their disadvantage?
That is not to say the University is in no way responsible, there are many steps needed to revert the reputation from ‘Exetahh’. It would benefit Exeter in many ways, as this reputation is sometimes damaging as prospective students shy away from the possibility of studying here due to fear of not fitting in. It only takes a quick google search to find forums of potential students questioning whether ‘posh’ Exeter would be the right environment for them. Why would a student wish to be in an environment that only emphasises and reminds them of their disadvantage? Where students from less privileged backgrounds are deterred from applying, it is easy to see how the gap widens.
However, the world is thankfully changing, and the importance of social mobility is being increasingly recognised. By focusing on social mobility targets during admissions, making decent accommodation more affordable and creating more low-cost food initiatives on campus, Exeter may once again be pronounced with its rightful Devonshire twang.
Ultimately, there is no denying that Exeter has a class problem; the statistics and gilets speak for themselves. It is therefore down to the University to take adequate measures to ensure that the most disadvantaged students are represented amongst the student body, and not left behind.