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…!”