How Middle Class is your Uni?

If you’ve ever been to a Varsity ice hockey match in Nottingham, you’ll have heard it: to the tune of “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”, the words “I’d rather be a poly than a c**t” resounding across an arena from the lungs of the Trent faithful. What exactly is the motivation behind this chant? Why are we c**ts?

Well, as with most things in Britain it’s probably to do with class. It’s not that we’re stereotypically and institutionally classier than them, it’s that we’re… well… more middle-classier than them – the 14th most middle-class university in the country, in fact, according to the Sunday Times University Guide. 82.2% of us come from the top three social classes, which is just over 7% behind leaders Oxford, putting us miles above Trent, though perhaps also showing that we’re not quite as good at picking-up the crumbs from the Oxbridge table as we’re supposed to be.

So how middle-class is Nottingham? Let’s start with the statistics. In 2009, the University admitted 22.9% of its students from households with incomes in the lowest bracket of under £23,660 year, which is below its own target of 24%. In 2008, only 19.1% of entrants came from the bottom four social classes, placing Nottingham below the Russell Group average. There’s a similar story to be found in some other categories too, such as the proportion of its entrants who come from state schools and those from ‘low participation neighbourhoods’, or areas from where very few school leavers tend to go into higher education.

What does this mean? Not a lot according to Nottingham’s Head of Widening Participation Dr. Penelope Griffin. Whilst admitting that the university must improve, she also argues that these figures are what you’d expect from a competitive, top-20 institution with high entry standards and a bias towards “Arts and ‘pure’ subjects, which tend to be less attractive to [poorer] students than applied & professional courses.”

From a student perspective, however, things can seem different. Taking a slightly less objective approach to finding out how middle class we are, a friend of mine recently carried out an experiment whereby she counted the number of Mini Coopers she saw during her walk from Lenton to campus. It came to 21. In that spirit, I decided to tot-up the number of Ugg boots – real ones, just to be clear – I could see in the course of a few hours around uni. I counted 32 pairs. That’s over £6,000 worth of furry footwear, in just a few hours! On one internet forum offering advice to budding undergraduates, Nottingham students were pretty uniform in their opinions: the nightlife’s great, halls are a rip-off and the people are a bit… samey: “Too many rugger buggers and ice queens”, “a lot of ra’s” and “middle-class, middle-brow, middle-England” are among the site’s best comments. The BMW garage of parental motors which opens outside most halls of residence come every holiday, and the legions of blond, back-combed locks and their wheeled suitcases rushing across campus to get the train back to North London each weekend reveal that there is something to these small summative statements.

Class may be one amongst many dividing lines at Nottingham – science subjects vs. arts, freshers vs. fourth years, sporty vs. not-so-sporty, Hallward catwalk vs. George Green sci-fi convention, Medics vs. everyone else – but it is undoubtedly significant. Even the club nights are particular for whilst Ocean, Oceana and Crisis are your classless, free-for-all cattle markets, High Spirits, Market Bar and Coco Tang all self-consciously cater to the more upwardly mobile.

In truth, this sort of thing happens all across British life; it’s not really Nottingham’s responsibility to be an engine of social mobility, but to take the best candidates it can and – more often than not – that means the better-heeled ones with the grades, the nous and the self-confidence to effectively play the admissions game. Elite universities are not comfortable participating in the business of social engineering – as the difficulties faced by Nottingham’s Widening Participation unit attest – but are asked to engage in it by a government which inherited ambitious Labour’s target of getting 50% of young people into higher education.

This is not a problem that is going to go away. As Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg argued in August, Britain is rife with “social segregation” and a key to explaining this lack of social mobility is the “educational apartheid that currently exists between vocational and academic learning in general, and between further and higher education in particular.” However, this does come from a member of the staunchly white-collar House of Commons, a man educated round the corner at Westminster and then at Cambridge, and who has now famously reneged on his pre-election promise not to vote for a rise in tuition fees.

The arguments are well rehearsed by now. The prospective lifting of the cap on top-up fees will make universities like ours nothing more than finishing schools for the middle classes by further putting-off poorer youngsters from applying. Less well-off families not only lack the means to pay these fees, but are more debt-averse than their wealthier counterparts, and are also less likely to encourage their children to apply to the best universities in the first place.

‘Not so!’ cry the Lib Dems, ‘It’s all progressive!’ They point to a number of measures to illustrate their point, such as the raising of the income threshold at which graduates will have to start paying back their fees from £15,000 to £21,000, the offering of £3,250 grants to students from families earning under £25,000, and the provision of a national bursary fund of £150 million. These will supposedly make the proposed system fairer than the current one by ensuring that 25% of students pay less than they currently do, and will bring more poorer youngsters into higher education than ever before. The massive expansion of the sector that began under previous governments will, in theory, finally benefit those whom it was supposed to in the first place.

Less wealthy students will undoubtedly benefit from these measures – though whether they will enter higher education in any greater numbers remains to be seen – whilst wealthier graduates, possibly with help from their parents, will pay-off their loans quickly. This of course means that they won’t end up paying anything like as much interest as a middle earner who may take 30 years to get rid of their debt.

Thus we tiptoe inexorably back to us, the middle classes, who will to an extent be paying for all of this by both subsidising poorer students, and plugging the gap left by all that interest which the wealthy don’t have to pay. Of course there’s nothing surprising here, as any system of progressive taxation tends to squeeze those in the middle by setting rates which are negligible for the very poor, and avoidable for the very rich. What is drastic is the extent to which the government’s 80% cut in university funding will shift the burden of paying for higher education from the taxpayer to the individual student.

So where does all this leave Nottingham? Well, if I carried out those same experiments in five years time, perhaps some of the Uggs would be Fuggs (ie. fake) and the Minis would be Renaults, but the pretensions would be the same. We’re pretty bourgeois as we are and this is unlikely to change much in the near future. This isn’t because we’ll end up a finishing school as a result of the fee rises, but because until brighter but poorer students are better able to compete with less able but wealthier ones at an earlier stage of their academic careers, then Nottingham students will remain far from salt-of-the-earth. That said, we’re hardly a bunch of Little Lord Fauntleroys either and, regardless, we’ll all be singing together come Varsity: all together now, “Your Dad works for my Dad…!”

Timothy MacFarlan

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29 Comments on this post.
  • V
    18 January 2011 at 12:25
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    Thought I’d dive in with the first comment before knee-jerk reactions kick in- think it’s a very fair article, pretty true to the material as well. We are a top class uni, many students are from wealthy backgrounds and the evidence does point to lower achievment in terms of grades from lower social classes. Hopefully most students here don’t really care what social background their peers come from unless they flaunt it ostentatiously (and that applies to both ends of the spectrum, both “lick road clean wit’ tongue” and “did a season at Val d’Isere” types).

    Let’s hope tuition fee increases can be offset by increased financial support to those of a less affluent background deserving of places, but MUCH more importantly that the progressive system can be explained to the families of potential students in such traditionally debt-averse, financially less astute sectors of society clearly, without recourse to headline grabbing “£27k oppressive, crippling burden”-esque language.

  • dan
    19 January 2011 at 01:47
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  • Tom Clements
    19 January 2011 at 04:58
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    I daresay this class issue only really applies to white British students; socioeconomic class structures and characteristics just don’t apply in the same way to Chinese or minority ethnic students for example.

  • Neil Welton
    19 January 2011 at 23:30
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    The reason you are rightly called “c**ts” has nothing to do with class – but everything to do with your university’s view of the less fortunate. A “can’t do” attitude, rather than a “can do”. As clearly expressed by Dr Penelope Griffin above and Timothy’s phrase “it’s not really Nottingham’s responsibility to be an engine of social mobility”. It is actually. This is also why I believe Dr Griffin should be sacked and replaced with someone who actually wants to do the job. Someone who doesn’t keep making all these silly excuses and putting the blame for their low participation on the less fortunate – even though thousands of the poorest children are excelling in their “arts and pure” academic subjects each year. Perhaps someone who does not have this deep vested interest as a Nottingham University Professor, but just someone with a degree of common sense. For the sooner poorer students are viewed for the contribution they can make, rather than a threat, the much better it will be for Nottingham University in the long run. Who knows – perhaps if the working-class people were given their fair share of the university cake, they might be happy to spend all their hard earned taxes funding middle-class student fees. Until then, go hang.

  • Neil Welton
    20 January 2011 at 00:00
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    Just to add – I would like to applaud Timothy MacFarlan for his honesty.

    At least he acknowledges that entrance to some universities is currently more about being better-heeled – and having the nous and self-confidence to effectively “play” the admissions game.

    Rather than anything academic.

  • aaron
    20 January 2011 at 01:53
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    I think this article is very good, and it clearly identifies some of the factors that contribute to an class-skewed admissions profile.

    However, there are two ways in which I feel that it fell short: firstly that the reasons given for this demographic imbalance were applied to the system as a whole, rather than the University of Nottingham specifically, and secondly that I think it is perhaps a mistake to confuse class (perhaps determined by income after reading this article, but of course that is quite contentious) and culture (of which Uggs and Minis are undoubtedly a mark).

    It interests me greatly, for example, how much the culture differs at this university to other universities and parts of the country. The article glibly mentions the fact that, in a few hours on campus “32 pairs” of Ugg boots were spotted, and that comments from the undergraduate population regarding the university’s predominant culture were along the lines of “a lot of ra’s [sic]”. Just anecdotally, I had not regularly seen Ugg boots in public for a number of years before coming here.

    I anticipate that many will find this issue superficial. But I do not think so at all. It is indeed a mistake to confuse class and culture, but it is mistake that is often made. The university’s culture undoubtedly gives it this impression of class-affiliation; cultural traits, after all, are used in the article to affirm the class-affiliation thesis. Perhaps, in this sense, the culture of the university damages its hopes of a diverse student population.

    But I do not wish to detract from the article’s merits; it is indeed very well written and interesting, and I am very glad that this issue has been raised as it is something that I often dwelled upon since starting here.

  • Tom Clements
    20 January 2011 at 08:42
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    I’ve actually seen working-class people driving in Minis and wearing Ugg boots before.

  • Lucy Hayes
    20 January 2011 at 14:30
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    Good article. Aaron also makes a good point – perhaps ‘middle class’ isn’t the term we should be using at all? Nowadays less people are identifying as working class and, according to one poll recently, no one at all is identifying as upper class –


    Anecdotal evidence from my time an Nottingham, while less reliable, suggests that people from wildly varying backgrounds identify as middle class; many purely because they are at university, tertiary education in itself being an indicator of middle-class-ness.

    While I don’t agree with Neil’s comments that all Nottingham University professors have “deep vested interests”, I’m with him on the points about the “can’t do attitude”. While this is a well written and engaging article, there is little consideration of ways to change this situation.

    “This isn’t because we’ll end up a finishing school as a result of the fee rises, but because until brighter but poorer students are better able to compete with less able but wealthier ones at an earlier stage of their academic careers, then Nottingham students will remain far from salt-of-the-earth.”

    Perhaps a slightly flippant dismissal of the effect the fees are likely to have on those from lower income backgrounds? And also, this could be an indication that Nottingham should invest more time and energy into helping local schools raise standards in order to get secondary school students up to a ‘more competitive’ level. There are already some schemes in place, but perhaps Nottingham’s consistent failure to meet their ‘widening participation’ targets suggests these efforts need to be stepped up.


  • Giselle
    22 January 2011 at 09:41
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    I loved this article. It’s very engaging.

    I do think as members of a middle-class educational institution, we are particularly good at alienating the other. Those not from the same social class, older people, families that dwell in Lenton, and students that didn’t go into Halls, do feel marginalised. I think the reason why we are called ‘c**ts’ is because we aren’t willing to make friends and to step out of our cliquey comfort zones.

    Kate Fox wrote a brilliant anthropological book called ‘Watching the English’. In it, she exposes the subtle class nuances which the middle-classes attempt to adopt in order to transform themselves into ‘the class above’. So if you’re lower-middle, you will immiate what you think is middle-middle, and so on. The middlers are terribly insecure about their positions in society because they can either slip or rise, very quickly. Perhaps the reason for seeing Ugg boot after Ugg boot on campus, is simply because their owners are insecure about their social status. I think the best way to overcome this is to feel the fear and do it anyway. Let’s mix with a variety of classes, integrate with Trent students, volunteer, and smile. It will make us and everybody else much happier people.

    • Tom Clements
      24 January 2011 at 08:47
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      @ Giselle “Let’s integrate with Trent students”. Are you saying all Trent students are from the working-classes? You snob, seriously.

      • Giselle
        27 January 2011 at 14:30
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        Tom, I think you miss my point. To reiterate, I am arguing for societal unity and cohesion, regardless of class. I think that this is particularly important at a time when university fees are rising by 300%. We need to get as many people on our side as possible by being cooperative and productive with each other.

        As a sort of aside: Thank you Joe, for highlighting the validity of my previous statement. (true to my word, here’s a computerised smile) 🙂

  • Joe
    24 January 2011 at 23:01
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    Hello Tom. When writting, sometimes we using something called a list. For example, one might write “Today I went to the shops and I bought apples, bananas and a troll.” The things in the list are separate entities are separated by commas (“,”) or the word “and.” In reading the list that Giselle puts forth suggesting ways people may become happier, she separates mixing with different classes and integrating with Trent student with a comma. The two do not necessarily have to be done at the same time, nor do they have to be done as the same time as smiling. I hope this clears up any misunderstanding.

    • Tom Clements
      28 January 2011 at 07:09
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      Mate, I know how to punctuate properly and I also know that a present participle like “using” is preceded by am/is/are after a pronoun like “we”. Those sort of smug, self-satisfied attempts at sarcasm are behind the reason why middle-class students get a bum rap for being complete snobs!
      As for as Giselle, sorry about my strident tone and thank you responding with a degree less cynicism than wisecrack Joe.

  • Ben
    26 January 2011 at 09:04
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    I think anyone that feels good using “your dad works for my dad” as a chant against Trent is truly deserving of the label “c*nt”. To my mind, when used in that sense, “c*nt” perfectly encapsulates the arrogance and unearned feeling of superiority (usually based on nothing other than the wealth of one’s parents) which are the hallmarks of so many Nottingham students. It makes me ashamed and usually shifts my support from my own to those on the other side of the arena. I thought of something last year and it’s still true – I’ve never met a Trent student I didn’t like, but I couldn’t say the same about Nottingham. Though I obviously know a lot more people from Notts Uni, I think there’s still something in that.

  • Ian Silvera
    27 January 2011 at 03:59
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    As a self described working class ‘lad’- in the ,what would some describe, in the northern sense of the word- it was obvious from year one that I was surrounded by privately educated middle-class students. This is not a bad thing, as I don’t judge people on the choice their parents have made for them. However, it’s a shame others from a similar background as me don’t make it to prestigious universities like Nottingham.

    This article fails to point out the key issue; the joke of comprehensive schooling in Britain- LSE social mobility figures and the Sutton trust show social mobility to be in decline; in part because of the removal of grammar schools.Moreover, Andrew Neil’s soon to be published TV doc’ points to this conclusion as well.

    I’ve gone through this jaded experiment , the result is that the talented are left to their own devices and the general quality of teaching is mediocre and unaspiriational. Often students are duped into believing ex-polys are as good as Russell group universities, only to find a wide difference in teaching quality when comparing notes on our universities.

    Mr Welton is wrong in his assumptions that it should be the universities job to widen participation, that’s the secondary schools job. Policies of positive discrimination, or affirmative action, only cover secondary education policy flaws.

    Another issue of social mobility is the hidden curriculum, I have written about here: http://game-view.net/2011/01/26/hypocrisy-exploitation-and-the-left-how-to-get-a-%E2%80%98progressive%E2%80%99-intern-for-free/

    In short, internships usually go to middle class students as they can afford , through parents, to go months on end without pay. Moreover, their parent’s contacts in other professional jobs allow them to access work experience easier (this is not a point against the students, but the companies who promote this behaviour) than working class students. For example, upon visiting the careers advisor about becoming a solicitor, he recommended that I contacted some of my parent’s friends in the profession. After explaining that a painter and decorator doesn’t usually know many solicitors, although some may do, he looked a little bemused.

    Finally, chanting “Your dad works for my dad” or the like, is frivolousness and horrible, nevertheless it’s not hard to think of equally damming retorts to this chant.

    • Nottingham tutor
      1 February 2011 at 12:53
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      Interesting stuff. Ian Silvera’s thoughtless comments about comprehensive education have to be corrected, though. Grammar Schools did not contribute to social mobility; they contributed to social segregation. Failures at 11-plus were siphoned off into vocational education at Secondary Moderns. The supposed ‘golden era’ of Grammar Schools in the 1950s and 60s coincided with a huge shift in the labour market that created increased demand for white-collar, managaerial and adminstrative workers, some of whom came from working-class backgrounds and had passed the 11-plus. All the research indicates that social mobility has everything to do with the labour market and not so much to do with education. Those LEAs that have retained Grammar Schools and the 11-plus, such as Kent, do very badly in tables of educational attainment and have levels of social mobility lower than average, again indicating that Grammar Schools contribute to social segregation and function as a brake on upward social mobility.

      Having arrived at Nottingham as an academic last year, after working for 15 years in state schools, youth work and the ‘new’ university sector, I was struck by how posh the university is. This truly is a different world, both in terms of the money and resources the University enjoys by comaprison with less fortunate institutions, and in terms of the social composition of the student body. Yes, the Mini Coopers, the Ugg boots, the Christmas ski-ing holidays, the internships wangled by family connections, all are part of the sheer aura of privilege and affluence that radiates from the vast majority of the students here. And there’s the self-congratulatory tone of the institution itself, constantly blowing its own horn about its ‘excellence’, its ‘global’ role etc., while it consistently fails to meet its duty to recruit from the lower social classes. However, what also struck me was that the posh Nottingham students with the good A-level results are in fact no brighter than the much poorer students with much inferior A-level results I was teaching at my last university job. It seems to me that many of the privately educated students at Nottingham have been so intensively coached that they find it very difficult to progress to independent learning at degree level. Moreover, the support we offer here is poor compared to the support students at the ‘new’ universites get. My Nottingham students get less than half the contact time that students at my previous university receive. But of course Russell Group universities recruit on the basis of ‘reputation’ or ‘brand image’ rather than on what they really provide for students, and snob value counts for everything in today’s market.

      Though I’m critical of Nottingham’s sadly complacent attitude to its failure to recruit from poorer social groups, I’m convinved that working class students are in many ways actually better off not coming to places like this. It can be very alienating for working class young people to have to live like a fish out of water surrounded by those (including tutors, many of whom are unreconstructed middle class types) who have no conception of what this world looks and feels like to anyone who comes from outside it.

  • dan
    27 January 2011 at 05:55
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    someone I knew once shouted ‘my Dad’s taxes pay your Mum’s welfare.’

    Ian is pretty much right. As a post-grad and having been to Sheffield, NU is more middle class but I think Uni is more in general as is the UK. Whether that is based on wealth, achievement or debt is a debatable point.

  • Jack
    27 January 2011 at 10:00
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    I complely agree with Ian. It is the sphere of the secondary schools and not the unveristy’s admissions policy that has to do with the high percentage of middle class students at Nottingham. Regardless of the rhetoric of the Tories concerning the pragmatics of the tuition fees, the rise will only serve to augment this statistic. This is because the new visions of debt will mean that people from lower earning backgrounds will be simply scared off the thought of university, where as the in social environment of middle class private schools not going to university is comparable to suicide.

  • Joe Bloggs
    29 January 2011 at 04:33
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    Thought I would contribute to this comment section with a factual revision. The article writes of Nick Clegg- ‘a man educated round the corner at Westminster and then at Oxford’. Just to point out that Mr Clegg went up to Cambridge, not Oxford.

  • vanessabrown
    29 January 2011 at 07:36
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    @ Joe Bloggs: You’re right according to Wikipedia 🙂 So thanks for pointing that out. The change has been made.

  • Rob
    1 February 2011 at 18:25
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    Im from that under 23, 000 pound bracket. Does that me working class? Seriously, class relationships today are much more complex than income brackets. I think we can all identitfy when there is serious economic deprevation and genuine economic privilege. Simply stating income doesnt tell the whole story. I consider myself middle class, but apparently Im poorer than most. How odd.

    • Ian Silvera
      2 February 2011 at 17:37
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      For the most part a combination of income and parent occupation suffices to determine ones class. You could very well be middle class, for instance a parent may be a teacher or another profession. If they aren’t in a proffesion or yourself, I find it difficult to see why you think you are middle class- maybe you like Blue Nun and Mozart?

      • Joseph Todd
        3 February 2011 at 13:35
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        @ Ian Silvera
        I think the point rob makes is that “working class” infers views and attitudes that many in the lower income bracket do not conform to. I am from that lower income bracket and went to a comp in a very deprived area yet do not have a typical “working class profile”. I’ve never really worked for a living, I read a lot, intensely enjoy the pursuit of knowledge, university, academia and am extremely aspirational. In modern society economic background or parents profession is not enough to define a person or the class they belong to, the attitudes, values and culture of the person matter too.

  • dan
    3 February 2011 at 21:16
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  • Tariq Singh
    21 February 2011 at 20:46
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    To be fair its a bit old fasioned to think its to do with money, i mean i dont spend money with friends, we talk and play sport. I think we are as feasibly far from a classless society as possible from what ive seen. the thing i see as the division is culture and attitudes. Culture meaning material things, not money, fasion but not necessarily expensive clothes against ripoffs. And also I don’t think it it just the black and white view whereby the upper and middle classes are immediately to blame for isolating lower classes. I think it’s alot more mutual than that.
    This article approachs with a ‘what we can do’ stance when it really is ‘what can they do’ To get along, both sides must try, and without stereotyping, I think more effort from the lower classes in making their UCAS application more inviting will help. It’s not against their culture to explore new interests and past times is it>? I should mention I am a socilogist and know what a contentious issue class, its almost as bad as race.

  • David
    26 May 2011 at 13:39
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    I do a masters at TRENT and both my parents work of the EU. I speak four languages fluently. I don’t understand why you guys look down on people who have less than you. Be humble and grateful and try to make a change for the better and help the less fortunate. You could in future maybe hire someone from a poorer background or lower class rather than your mate or Uni of student.

    T.R.E.N.T we are the trent army!

    • Rob
      27 May 2011 at 01:11
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      Top marks for a very subtle troll. At least I think it was a troll. Because if not, you are a complete joke and represent the terrible attitudes of the m/c’s.

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