“I’m from a single-parent working-class family from rural Wales. I went to Bristol to study law and I never really met middle-class people until I went to university. I’d never interacted with people like that before because I come from a community where there is not that sort of privilege that I saw at university.”

Universities can be a step towards an exciting and better future. They have traditionally been places associated with the elite of society. For some, the journey into higher education is an inevitability. For others, being the first of your family to go to university can provide a whole set of barriers and challenges that you are not equipped to deal with.

Imposter syndrome and belonging

The transition into the first year of university is a vital moment for any student, and usually the most memorable. During this period, students establish themselves within their new institution, maybe in a new city or town, and make new friends.

“Many times I commented on feeling isolated on my course in particular, not only with people, not my colour but when I had been speaking to people who were not from a similar background. I couldn’t relate to them in many ways.”

Some people make this transition with ease. But for many working-class students, it can be a lonely time, leading to a loss of confidence, self-doubt and in too many cases to dropping out. 

In this vital first year, it is important that tailored support is available to tackle this. Imagine turning up at an institution that looks unrecognisable from the place you’ve come from, and works very differently from a state comprehensive. It is likely that your knowledge of the processes and structures of university is limited.

Educating All, commissioned by the Manchester-based social change and leadership inequality charity, RECLAIM is developed, facilitated and delivered by working-class students who use their lived experience of the barriers faced within higher education to work with universities creating tailored, student-centred solutions to improve the recruitment, retention, attainment and well-being of working-class students.

The voices of working-class students need to be heard, and universities should be actively empowering them to be at the forefront of university life without tokenising them.

The assumption is sometimes made that all students know what kind of support is on offer, where to go to get it and have the confidence to ask for it in the first place.

Some don’t only feel as if they don’t belong just at their university but also at home and in their communities. One student spoke of the differences at their university compared to where they grew up and how the difficulties of adjustment resulted in them losing friends from home. One student said that she found it “difficult and different at home; life at home was normal and routine and very different to the stimulating environment at university.”

Why is this all this important? The problems that working-class students face at university impact us all. The challenges of social inequality and the severe underrepresentation of certain groups in positions of influence cannot be overcome unless there is serious reform of one of the most crucial aspects of society: education.

Working class individuals should be represented and provided with the opportunity to make decisions that will affect them, and this means access via higher education to the positions that make change. The institutions that are creating and developing our lawmakers, barristers, judges and the next generations of powerful and influential people need urgent change and practical and effective solutions in order for this to happen.

Universities need to be at the forefront of progressive social change, starting with having institutions that sound and look like the whole of the country and not just a small and powerful section of it.

It is time that all students are able to thrive no matter their background.