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18 December 2017updated 16 Apr 2018 10:47am

The “Thatcher v miners” Durham party shows how tough university is for poor students

Class divides this generation of students – and it’s affecting their mental health.

By Mason Boycott Owen

Last month, one of Durham University’s college rugby clubs came under fire for organising a “Thatcher v miners” themed party. You could either come dressed up as a miner or a member of the government that closed the pits.

In a stunning lack of taste and tact, the invitation said: “We want flat caps, filth and a general disregard for personal safety”, and that “a few working class-beating bobbys wouldn’t go amiss”. The event was later cancelled after the university condemned the club’s actions.

But this willful disregard for the cultural history of the North East and working-class communities reveals a problem that spreads beyond the idiocy of rugby socials. Class is one of the most important issues facing students today, and attitudes of the kind on display at Durham are seriously harming social mobility.

Thirty-three per cent of the university’s 2015 intake were privately educated, with subjects such as classics taking more than half of their students from independent schools. According to the Independent Schools Council (ISC), only around 6.5 per cent of children are educated privately. This discrepancy highlights why Durham has a reputation for being a hotbed of privilege.

It is also an issue of the North/South divide. In 2015, only 6.2 per cent of offers from Durham went to students in the North East – the area it should arguably be trying hardest to cater for. This only exacerbates the social divide at the university, which is widely seen as a “Home County away from home” for those from the affluent South.

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But statistics on schooling do not tell the full story in terms of class. Of course, merely attending a state school does not make you working-class.

The Sutton Trust released a report in March which found that 85 per cent of top comprehensives are “socially selective”, with middle-class families pricing the working-class out of catchment areas. One only has to look at Tatler’s guide to “the best state secondary schools” to see how wealthier parents often have the pick of the best state schools.

Working-class students also face barriers when it comes to accessing higher education. Though access schemes do some good work, loans for many poorer students are not enough, often not even covering the cost of university accommodation. Inequality then persists when it comes to the graduate job market, with top professions such as law and politics still disproportionately dominated by the privately educated. Richer graduates often benefit from their parents’ contacts and money, allowing them to undertake unpaid internships – a luxury their working-class peers don’t have.

In 2016, the Social Mobility Commission said: “Britain has a deep social mobility problem which is getting worse for an entire generation of young people.” It carried out research which found that professionals from working-class backgrounds are paid £6,800 a year less than their affluent colleagues on average.

This sentiment is echoed by the Sutton Trust, which said: “Thousands of young people face a ‘lost opportunity’ because they can’t access top jobs, unless firms take potential employees’ background into account.”

Its report, prepared for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility, added: “Financial barriers to accessing the professions should be minimised. There are significant barriers to accessing professions, particularly the most competitive and those that are mostly concentrated in London.”

The idea that “young people have never had it so bad” has created much talk of a generational divide – although this is not one of anger but of envy. The world many parents remember – with job security, fulfilling careers and disposable income – just doesn’t exist any more. And the feeling of generational despair is harming young graduates’ mental health.

A 2016 YouGov poll showed that one in four students suffered from a specific mental health problem. The most common were depression and anxiety, affecting over 70 per cent of all those with mental health issues.

According to one study, rates of teenage depression may have risen by as much as 70 per cent in the last 25 years. Although there is little research specifically looking at the mental health of working-class students, financial worries and mental health problems can influence one other, according to Rachel Piper, policy officer at the mental health charity Student Minds.

“In some cases, experiencing financial worries can increase mental health difficulties and experiencing mental health difficulties can worsen ability to take care of finances,” she says. “It is likely that this concern will be more prevalent for working-class students. Managing your finances as a student can itself be difficult without the addition of mental health difficulties.”

A report by the Mental Health Foundation found: “Mental health is shaped by the wide-ranging characteristics (including inequalities) of the social, economic and physical environments in which people live.” Further research found: “Children with a mental health problem are more likely to be boys, living in a lower income household, in social sector housing and with a lone parent.”

The modern student experience can exacerbate pressures. “University life does pose some unique challenges,” says Stephen Buckley, head of information at mental health charity Mind. “People are expecting you to take on the role and responsibilities of an adult, yet you may well have left behind you all the social and organisational structures that you relied on for support.”

Mind has produced a guide on how to speak to your GP about mental health. Visit: www.mind.org.uk/findthewords. To speak to someone in confidence, phone Mind’s Infoline between Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393

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