Observations of Class Differences and The University Experience

Article written 2015

It would seem logical to go to university if your desired career requires a degree or because you have an acute thirst for knowledge. Yet from my own experience it seems that a lot of people spend thousands of pounds studying for a subject that they have little interest in.

At university the majority of students who were on my course had been privately educated and were from incredibly privileged backgrounds. In one seminar I got a snapshot of their world of affluence when we were discussing the sociology of childhood. The seminar leader asked if we ever had a child-minder when we were little. One fellow student seemed perplexed and responded: ‘I had a nanny’. Everyone, bar me and another girl, looked at him and nodded in agreement. When I was little I thought that sunny beaches and palm trees didn’t actually exist and I had a pretty similar perception of nannies; they were just in films! Or so I thought.

Mary Poppins

During my first semester I heard other students speak with such confidence and self-assurance that I assumed they knew much more than I did. But I soon realised it was the way they spoke rather than what they said that was convincing. After leaving university I worked as a sales consultant at a luxury jewellers and was trained to speak in this convincing manner; customers’ questions should always be answered with boldness and without hesitation. It was better to confidently answer a question with a ludicrous response rather than the correct answer with self-doubt.

Those on my course at university who came from wealthy backgrounds didn’t need any training when it came to confidence; it is likely that they had it nurtured from birth. The only way I could ooze confidence in seminars was to spend hours in the library reading about the subject to be sure that my contributions were worthy. I took my degree seriously, probably too seriously, and always had ideas to contribute in discussions. What was terribly disappointing was that every week I would attend seminars where people had more interest in watching the clock than engaging in conversations about the wonders of humanity.

I wondered how they could possibly get a decent mark in essays and exams when they clearly spent hardly any time learning and skipped most classes. Academic success was integral to my university experience. I was so preoccupied with getting a first in order to stand out from the masses of graduates with 2:1s that I missed what seems to be the actual reason most people go to university – creating social capital.

Making contacts and meeting new people is vitally important for career prospects and is far more useful that being able to understand 19th century social theory. I noticed that privileged students took more advantage of the opportunity to create social capital, when it is those from disadvantaged backgrounds that need it the most. I think the reason for this was that wealthy students could afford to spend their time partying and making new acquaintances, because if they failed academically it didn’t really matter.


By my second year at university people started talking about internships in the penultimate summer before graduation. I heard many of them saying that their parents had got them a position as an intern (either their parents had their own business or had friends who were happy to accommodate them). Once an internship is secured then the first step on the graduate career ladder is pretty much handed to you on a plate. If you can fit in and look the part during your internship then you’ll probably be offered a position for when you graduate and it’s unlikely that your future boss bother to look closely at your academic marks. Oh and also it’s pretty difficult for the boss to reject a potential employee who is the son or daughter or his/her friend, a friend who is probably also an essential contact.

Wealthy students are in the fortunate position to see university as an opportunity to party and have fun for a few years. If they totally fail academically they have a safety blanket of connections to get them by. I think this is why a lot of students chose courses they have little interest; the content of a degree bares little significance in the university experience. Even if a working class student recognised the importance of creating contacts and wanted to work at acquiring social capital, at the sacrifice of their studies, this plan would likely fail as their habitus would make it difficult for them to make friends with people who are influential. For working class students the only option is to exceed academically, otherwise it really is a waste of time and resources.

So, if you’re thinking of going to uni this September and can afford to go just for the experience then prepare yourself for lots of fun and drunkenness (see first video)! But if you actually need and want to get good marks then expect the journey to involve some gruelling hard work!

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