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Patronising working class students won’t make universities more inclusive

30 September 2017

10:30 AM

30 September 2017

10:30 AM

From Educating Rita and The Young Ones to the more recent Fresh Meat, social class differences among university students provide perennial dramatic inspiration. Working class students – what with their funny accents, strange diet and odd clothes – are simply a great source of comic relief. Now there’s a new stereotype for scriptwriters to get their teeth into: chicken. Fried chicken to be precise. Apparently the working class just can’t get enough of it. And luckily the working class students at Goldsmiths, University of London, have defenders on hand to ensure this cultural trait is neither mocked nor appropriated by their more middle class peers. Working class students: you can relax. Your fried chicken-habit is safely yours, and yours alone.

In their naivety, student union officials at Goldsmiths organised a ‘Chicken Run’ social event designed to introduce new students to local delicacies. Think of it as a kind of non-alcoholic pub crawl only involving fried chicken rather than beer. In keeping with the angst-ridden nature of today’s student politics, the planned event could not have been more right-on. Organised by black and minority ethnic officers, Chicken Run brought together a diverse group of students and promoted shops run by black business owners to boot.

Yet these politically correct credentials did not stop Chicken Run from causing outrage. Che Scott-Heron Newton, the daughter of late American jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron, told the Telegraph that chicken feasting was a ‘gross exotification of local working-class culture’ and that ‘a poorer area of London’s culture was being mocked by this tour’. Another critic added: ‘I think it’s patronising and voyeuristic to parade a mainly middle audience around chicken shops, especially when our presence as a university already gentrifies the area as it is.’ So, there we have it. Students, know your place! Leave fried chicken to the working class and, presumably, Organic Waitrose Finest to the middle class.

Goldsmiths is not the only university where it is assumed that the cultural fragility of working class students needs to be protected. Looking after working class students is, it seems, currently all the rage and the NUS has launched a year-long campaign to ensure they are properly cared for. King’s College London, like many other universities, now has a ‘working class officer’ to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds and celebrate pride in working class culture. At Oxford and Cambridge, a ‘buddy’ scheme pairs up working class students so they can support each other through gin tasting sessions and high table dining.

The sudden emergence of campaigns and officers could send the message that if you’re working class you’re likely to be a lone figure on today’s university campus. But this is far from the case. Despite high tuition fees, statistics out this week show that almost half of all young people now enter higher education by the time they’ve reached the age of thirty. This figure, as universities minister Jo Johnson rightly points out, includes ‘record numbers of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds’. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s claim that working class kids are put off university by the high levels of debt they are likely to accrue, the number of students from the lowest socio-economic groups has increased every year both before and after the decision to increase tuition fees.

Working class youngsters no doubt want to go to university for all the same reasons as their better off classmates. At its best, higher education should be personally transformative – it can introduce students to new ideas and cultural experiences. This is less about disowning your background and more about experimenting with new tastes in food, music, fashion and politics. Telling students that they need to stay in their own cultural lane and stick to what they know, even if out of some misguided notion of ‘respect’, is not only deeply patronising but worse, it takes away all that is challenging and potentially life-changing about going to university.

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