Elite universities aren’t hotbeds of ‘wokery’: our research shows they’re rife with racism and classism | Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers

In both the US and the UK, students described being told that they were beneficiaries of affirmative action

It has become common, in some circles, to view elite universities as places of left-leaning “wokery”. A recent Daily Mail article ranked higher education institutions according to their penchant for promoting a range of “politically correct” tropes – and placed Cambridge and Oxford in the top spots.

In talking to students in the UK and the US as part of our research for a new book, we found that this was a deliberate mirage. Beyond the culture wars caricature, universities such as Harvard and Yale, Oxford and Cambridge, remain highly conservative institutions that align with the interests of privileged groups to perpetuate existing power structures.

Yes, young people who aren’t white or wealthy might make it through the gates, but the gatekeeping does not end there. And, for many, the reality of daily life within these institutions can be very uncomfortable. As one student told us: “Getting here is hard enough. Once you get here you would think you were on a level playing field, but it doesn’t work like that.

“There are hierarchies of difference based on your accent and what school you went to before you came here. It’s easy to tell those who are from upper- or middle-class, privileged backgrounds, and those who are trying to fit in.”

A white, working-class student told us how difficult it was to compete with this “unspoken” advantage: “It’s their entitlement that they’ve grown up with. It’s part of their persona. It’s not just about getting a place here – it bleeds into every aspect of their lives.”

Even the privileged students knew the system was rigged. “I went to a school that was predominantly white and middle class, full of students just like me,” one told us. “We all came from quite wealthy backgrounds. I don’t think many of us were exceptionally bright, but we had the correct training to get us here. We knew what to say, how to say it, and what was expected of us.”

While working-class students told us of overt classism, students of colour recounted recurrent experiences of overt racism. In both the US and the UK, they described being frequently told that they were beneficiaries of affirmative action: in effect, that they were advantaged because they were Black or because they attended a state school. In reality, all the research shows that these factors make people less likely to secure a place.

A female student told us of her discomfort at suggestions that she was recruited as part of a “quota” of Black students. In echoes of Ngozi Fulani’s experience at Buckingham Palace, she said: “Even professors ask that question, ‘How come you came here?’ It’s not a simple question, it’s always about who I am and what’s my story.”

Another Black student told us: “I was the only Black person on my course, and was made to feel different by others, but also felt different myself. When the lecturer said something about Black people, everyone would turn and look at me and expect me to be the expert. It’s the posh, white, middle-class boys who dominate. They have all been to the same private schools and already know each other before they come. They let you know you are not one of them.”

Unsurprisingly, a feeling of “impostor syndrome” was not uncommon. Another student described “feelings of inferiority”, and added “it’s not just the academic spaces, it’s also the social spaces”.

In the US, an emphasis on “extracurriculars” – such as evidence of sporting or musical ability, often fostered through private lessons paid for by wealthy parents – acts to exclude students along racial or class lines. In the UK, the Oxbridge college system and interview process privileges those from elite private schools, who pride themselves on their longstanding ties and strategic knowledge of how to get in.

The narrative that disadvantaged students are unfairly advantaged acts as a smokescreen for the overarching purpose of elite universities: to funnel the sons and daughters of privileged families from elite fee-paying schools into elite professions, via a comfortable environment in which those students can flourish.

At the same time, the illusion of meritocracy is undermined to suggest that poorer students or students of colour are the undeserving beneficiaries of a “politically correct”, woke agenda. These mental gymnastics work to preserve the status quo.

In the elite university, privilege is produced and reproduced. The interests of the elite are conserved. And the cherry on the cake? They can comfort themselves by still feeling hard done by.


Kalwant Bhopal and Martin Myers

The GuardianTramp

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