Students at Oxford’s St Hilda’s College have voted to appoint a Class Liberation Officer and, my goodness, it’s easy to make fun of, not least by The Sunday Times with its snooty jokes about comrades and whippets.
As an alumna of the college, I’ve read the media coverage with interest, as well as the responses from other former students. The genuine bemusement many express at the decision tells its own story. Graduates are keen to point out that since they didn’t witness or experience class prejudice at Oxford, it must not exist. Online responses to the story in national newspapers paint the students as oversensitive slaves to political correctness.
While it’s easy to mock the idealism of student politics, it is difficult to argue with the undergraduates’ aim of ’equalising opportunity for those from working-class and socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds.’
Unfortunately, the context is all too clear. Oxford’s perennial issue with access, as rehearsed, for example, by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, was recently reinforced by Chancellor Chris Patten’s suggestion that widening participation is analogous to lowering academic standards. The impact of such statements on current students at the university should not be underestimated: you might have got in, but you’ll never quite belong.
There isn’t a league table for discrimination, and while the ‘micro-aggressions’ identified by the St Hilda’s JCR are hardly a matter of life and death, they do impact on the quality of life for students in that college and across the rest of sector. When I was asked where I came from by a senior Don in my first week, the condescending reply, ‘well, we have people from all sorts of places here’, was a reminder that I only had one foot in the door of the ivory tower. Admittedly, I grew up in one of Mary Portas’s allegedly ‘derelict’ suburbs, but it was hardly Coketown.
These exchanges are rarely witnessed; they are not easily recognised even by those who experience them, but they may be just enough to push an already ambivalent student away from a university. This is what the students at St Hilda’s seem to have grasped so well. This role isn’t so much about getting working class students into universities, it’s about getting them through.
Despite the sneering onlookers who are mystified about what a Class Liberation Officer might actually do, the role seems to me more relevant than ever. One of the simplest but most significant challenges for first-generation students is getting to grips with the language of higher education, complicated further by institution-specific vocabulary and pronunciation minefields (Magdalen or Gonville and Caius anyone?) A CLO might easily help new students to navigate some of these invisible obstacles in a friendly, unpatronising way.
They might also mount a political campaign against institutional policies that disadvantage working-class students: the expectation at Oxford that undergraduates should not take part-time jobs during term-time, for example, ignores economic reality. This is not about stigmatising, or patronising, or romanticising working class students. It is about fairness.
It took me a long time to understand that the question ‘where did you go to school’ wasn’t about location. I learned to interpret these attempts to place me, just as I came to admire the ‘unassailable confidence’ of privately-educated friends. Universities can be transformative places, bringing people together to share labs and libraries, not to mention bathrooms and beds. But institutional discussions of quotas and targets all too easily overlook the day-to-day experiences of students. That the idea of a Class Liberation Officer has been so widely mocked and undermined might be just the evidence the students need to confirm its value. More power to them.