UK’s top universities urged to act on classism and accent prejudice

Universities must act to eradicate discrimination against working-class students, including the mockery of regional accents, equality campaigners have said.

A Guardian investigation has found widespread evidence of students at some of the country’s leading universities being ridiculed over their accents and backgrounds, in some cases prompting them to leave education.

The analysis found discrimination against working-class students was particularly prevalent among Russell Group universities. The group, which is made up of 24 institutions, has a reputation for academic excellence.

In a series of Guardian interviews, students past and present reported bullying and harassment over their accents and working-class backgrounds. Some said their academic ability was questioned because of the way they spoke.

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC), , which monitors progress in improving social mobility in the UK, described the situation as unacceptable and said accents had become a “tangible barrier” for some students.

This week the Guardian reported complaints of a “toxic attitude” towards some northern students at Durham University. Last month the university launched an inquiry after wealthy prospective freshers reportedly planned a competition to have sex with the poorest student they could find.

But experiences of classism and accent prejudice are not confined to Durham, said Sammy Wright, the lead commissioner on schools and higher education for the SMC. He said the government body had spent 18 months examining the differing chances for young people based on where they come from.

“We found an entrenched pattern in certain areas where social mobility is very low, and often the only way to grasp opportunities involved moving away from where they were brought up – to go to university or find jobs,” said Wright, who is also vice-principal of Southmoor Academy in Sunderland.

“But we also found that social and economic disadvantage often hampered any chance to move out. Accent is a part of this, alongside cultural capital and social networks. In my own work in schools in the north-east, accent can become a marker of everything else, a tangible barrier – most of all to the young people themselves, who internalise a sense of social inferiority.”

Wright said well-meaning university outreach teams were consistently failing in their efforts to reassure working-class students. “They promise their institutions are friendly and welcoming, but when that message comes in a home counties accent from bored middle-class students who have been sent into the north to deliver the message, my students are rightly sceptical.”

The Sutton Trust, a charity that helps young people from disadvantaged backgrounds access higher education, called on top universities to do more to ensure an inclusive and supportive environment for all undergraduates.

Sir Peter Lampl, the trust’s founder and chair, described the experiences of some students as “scandalous”. “It’s really tough for young people from low-income backgrounds to get into top universities. For this and for other reasons, it’s completely unacceptable that they are discriminated against while they’re there,” he said.

Analysis by the Office for Students (OfS), the government’s higher education regulator, shows that virtually all communities with the lowest levels of access to higher education are in industrial towns and cities of the north of England and the Midlands, and in coastal towns. For example, the most recent data shows that 55% of young people in London go into higher education but only 40% in the north-east.

The OfS director for fair access and participation, Chris Millward, said the issue of accent prejudice spoke to deeper inequalities in the education system. “It is crucial that universities strive to create an open and inclusive culture for all. There is no such thing as a ‘right’ accent or background for higher education – all students deserve the opportunity to thrive, no matter where they come from,” he said.

Sara Khan, a vice-president of the National Union of Students, said working-class students were sold a “myth of meritocracy”, but in some cases the reality was starkly different.

“As long as working-class students have to pay for education, work alongside their studies to cover basic necessities, and are saddled with debt for the rest of their lives, higher education will never be a welcoming environment for them,” she said. “It is unfortunately inevitable that in a system like this, such students would face prejudice and harassment, which is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the classism in our education system.”

The Russell Group has been contacted for comment.

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