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Are freshers’ week activities too middle class?

David Kernohan sets out what we can learn from social background categories in the Unite/HEPI/YouthSight research on early university experience
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The framing of those within the higher education sector as “elites” or even “citizens of nowhere” elides a growing number of students with firmly working class backgrounds choosing HE study. But how does the experience of entering university suit them? Not well, it seems.

In marketing speak, these would be those with C2DE parents rather than ABC1. These terms derived from the National Readership Survey (NRS) have a long history, spanning 50 years. We see the binary split so often we almost forget the subgradations:

AUpper middle classhigher managerial, administrative, professional4% of UK in 2016
BMiddle classintermediate managerial, administrative, professional23% of UK in 2016
C1Lower middle classsupervisory, clerical, junior managerial administrative, professional28% of UK in 2016
C2Skilled working classskilled manual workers20% of UK in 2016
DWorking classsemi-skilled and unskilled manual workers15% of UK in 2016
ENon-workingcasual workers, state pensioners, unemployed on government benefits10% of UK in 2016
OtherMay include upper class, and roles that are not easily classified>1% of UK in 2016

A different class

To be honest, these definitions (now maintained by the Market Research Society) are showing their age. Since the advent of John Major’s “classless society”, and the advent of new roles (where would a web designer sit?) we have shied away as a nation from definitions of social class as useful concepts in understanding society. In HE data we are more likely to look at POLAR (likelihood of young people attending HE) or IMDs (income and other factors) in identifying “hard to reach” groups.

So it is rare to see NRS applied to a HE dataset, and even rarer to see the detailed split. For this reason I leapt at the chance to dive in to the recent Unite/HEPI/YouthSight data set which included detail on this very issue, and related it to the initial experiences of those entering HE.

The survey was completed by 2,535 university applicants and 2, 573 first year undergraduate students, and responses were weighted to ensure a representative samples of the UK undergraduate population. The weighting and the comparatively large sample size make it safer to use such detailed splits, but I would treat findings as indicative of trends only.

The big problem with the population as a whole is that there are comparatively low numbers of students from a group E background – just under 3.4% of the total. This subset does show some interesting results, but we need to be careful in our interpretation. On the visualisation the grey pie chart shows the proportion of each group in the responses to the selected question. A lighter grey means we need to be more careful in associating significance to a result.

The survey happened in April, so I am not sure how non-continuing students were compensated for – you’d expect (based on POLAR data) that much number of students from C2DE backgrounds would leave their course in the first year than those from ABC1 backgrounds.

Freshers’ week

The first week at university is sometimes seen, by misty eyed nineties graduates, as a never-to-be-repeated bacchanal. The drinking, partying, and casual sex is no longer as central as it once was – but is even the new, kinder, freshers still irredeemably middle class?

From the data it appears so. Students from progressively less middle-class backgrounds are much less likely to participate in organised events, and those that do are less likely to enjoy the experience. Though – as above – the sample size is low, the difference is particularly notable for those with a group E background.

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This prompts important questions – what might these students be doing during freshers that might be different from other groups, and what might be the impact?

Though the differences are not really significant those from C2DE backgrounds did seem slightly more likely to attend a lecture or go to the library – suggesting that the social aspect of university is seen as less important than the academic aspect (though, they are slightly more likely to take illegal drugs during freshers’ week0. It is possible that a lack of social knowledge could contribute to this.

University aims

There’s a sharp difference in motivations for going to university. For those from C2DE backgrounds, achieving financial stability is paramount. It would be fair to suggest that students from these groups are more likely to have experienced or witnessed financial instability in a family or friendship context. These students are also more likely to cite a desire to leave home as a reason to attend university

Students from a group D or E background are also more likely to describe themselves as an unsuccessful student, or to be unsure what the notion of a successful student means (although polling on this does not show these students as using sharply differing criteria than others). They are also less likely to consider themselves as a very successful student.

There’s also a greater likelihood that those from a C2DE background will make friends on their course than through the other major routes (in accommodation, from student societies). Applicants with parents in groups C2 and D are less likely to intend to join societies, or to not have thought about the idea. Again this feels like cultural capital – a lack of understanding of the place of student societies in university life, or a lack of university experienced family or friends.

All of this contributes to anxiety – and, sure enough, those from C2, and especially D or E, backgrounds report as being slightly more anxious on a day to day basis.

The visualisations

You’ll see that there are a load of questions and statements that you can look at through this lens, and I’ve also included as many splits as are available. They are all accessible via the embedded chart above. However, if you use the splits do keep an eye on the pie-chart… if it all goes pale grey then you are on shaky statistical ground looking at low sample sizes.

2 responses to “Are freshers’ week activities too middle class?

  1. I went to uni in the late 80s. My dad was a miner and I was quite left wing. I’d never met public school kids before, especially so many “utopian socialists”. The burning of cannabis scented incense, the inability to drink, loutish bullying posh kid socialists; I hated it.

    Spot the social inadequates, my unhelpful brother told me. Who? “Im Fish, I’m a Tory”, “Dave, I’ve just spent a year at a Christian retreat in Sunderland” “Clive, I look and talk like I’m from Trumpton”, “Paul the professional Cockney, are we all going to be in a gang?” The worst offender was a privileged square head rich kid from Cheshire, he carried out homophobic assaults on a vulnerable gay man. He’s now a london labour councillor, I wonder if he thinks it’s all forgotten?

    I hated fresher’s week, I’d been in the labour party since I was 14, I didn’t join the student one, it was too middle class. I fell out with my lecturers pretty quickly, they’d never left school and I hadn’t been taught at my school how to fawn over authority.

    I really struggled, I wasn’t analytical enough for the course work and lacked the social confidence to mix with the posh. It came to head when a senior politics lecturer asked me to stay back after a tutorial and asked what was up. I opened my heart to her and told her the experience I was having. She told me that I should give up my place at the University to someone who might appreciate it more. That taught me a very valuable lesson about middle class privilege, and I’m grateful to her to this day.

    Instead of leaving, I learned to play the system, fleece the students union, grab the grant and try to enjoy myself without being complicit. Then I found a career away from posh idiots, raging fake lefties, music posters and vicious child like teachers. I’ve no friends from my time at uni, but the land based FE college I went to next has provided the life long friendships University never could have.

    I had a room mate, our first conversation:
    Him “er, what are we going to do about sexual encounters?”.
    Me “er, I’m game!” thinking it was a good joke.
    Him “er, no, I mean women”.

  2. The concept of the Bacchanal Fresher’s Week was one of the more daunting prospects for me as a ‘first in family’ student – I went to a ‘Pre-92’ in the late 1990s and was relieved to find there was actually no pressure to participate in unsuitable organised events, but that just meant Fresher’s Week was very boring. I had a couple of timetabled sessions to introduce everyone to the department, and it only took me about two hours to go round the Fresher’s Fair and join my subject society, so I spent the rest of the week in my room.

    Once I had academic work and part time work to do, and was able to bring more entertainment stuff from home, things were much better. There was very helpful peer support on my course, and the lecturers were able to bring the subject to life as they had lived it, not just taught it, so I did well.

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