YES/NO: Should YUSU have a ‘Working Class Students’ Officer’?

Michaela Tharby – YES:

The University of York is a leader in diversifying intake, yet nothing is done to bridge the attainment gap between classes and class differences are persistently ignored. A working class part-time officer would make sure that the interests of poorer students are represented, and begin to address the massive class issues at our university.

The four liberation officers work to make sure self-identifying students have a voice and look after specific interests of minority students. The current liberation framework ignores class but the ugly truth is quality of opportunity is an urban myth – especially when unpaid internships are a must for a good career – university life is a privileged bubble, and no one talks about the culture shock of coming to university. Class matters, whether we like it or not.

I grew up on a council estate, went to one of the worst schools in the country and was made homeless during my A levels. I went from an environment where being above the minimum wage and owning your house were luxuries – to university life where I honestly met someone who thought the average salary was £100,000 because “why would you work for less?” Attitudes to food, careers, fashion, and language all differentiate us, and there was a crushing sense of alienation (please see ‘Chav D’).

Following in the footsteps of Manchester, KCL, LSE, St. Hilda’s College Oxford and SOAS, a working class officer would help with any sort of culture shock at the university, coordinate the opportunities for people with a lower socio-economic status, and make sure working class people are represented. They would continuously lobby against hidden fees, improve access to information for bursaries and scholarships, and make sure emergency loans are done properly. The university puts so much time into widening participation – yet, resources and eff ort seem to stop once you are actually in university.

People say the president always lobbies for the interests of poorer students but we need a specific officer to form a network and represent students. Alex Urquhart, while lovely, went to Harrow, one of the most expensive and exclusive schools in the country – forgive me if I think he may not completely understand the working class perspective. We cannot continue to ignore the role of class and the alienation students from a lower socioeconomic class face. A social mobility & working class officer would not solve the problem – but it would be a step in the right direction. It would make university life so much better for the students who need it and the representation comes at the expense of no one. York has always led by example, and it is time we do so for working class students.

Twitter: @Kalawaddup

Josh Salisbury – NO:

When I first got to York, I was intimidated as hell. It seemed that loads of people I met were so sure of themselves. They just had this unshakeable inner confidence that after three years, they would leave York with a 2:1 and work in publishing, or law, or medicine like their parents or family friends do. They’d be able to work unpaid internships in central London in the summer, and they already had CVs bursting at the seams with extra-curricular activities. And as the fi rst in my family to go to uni, on a full maintenance grant, that was scary.

So I completely understand the desire for a working class officer in YUSU. The issue is that I can’t see the role working and functioning beyond simple tokenism.

Firstly, all YUSU part time officers have networks which they chair. What would a working class students’ network look like? What would it discuss? And most importantly, who would attend? It’s incredibly hard to pin-point exactly what working-class means. This isn’t a problem that other networks face: it’s much clearer who exactly the disabled students’ network is for, or the LGBTQ network. But no-one can pin-point precisely what the remit of a working class students’ network is in the same way. The danger is that middle class students will self-defi ne as working class, and talk over the voices of genuinely working class students.

Supporters of the idea hope that a working class students’ officer would be able to stop the caricature of working class students on campus. Yet having a working class students’ officer wouldn’t have stopped Derwent from hosting ‘Chav D’ for many years, or Halifax and James Colleges from running a Chavs v Toffs social. The proof is in the student reaction to criticism of the events: many working class students denied that having a Chav themed social is classist in the first place, and took more offense at the backlash against the events than the events themselves.

This underscores the biggest problem facing a Working Class Students’ Officer. Many working class students acknowledge the problem of exclusion on campus, but resent the idea of having an officer speak on their behalf. They would feel that an officer specifi cally for working class students singles them out. The working class students’ officer also wouldn’t do justice to the breadth of opinion among students who are working class. The very fact that working class students can’t even agree on whether there ought to be an officer in YUSU for them shows that.

There’s no denying that York can be a culture shock for people from low-income backgrounds, and every effort should be made to make life easier for those students. YUSU should be pushing for more bursaries for low income students, and seek to educate the whole student body about the issues that working class students face. But they should, and can do this through their existing officers – there’s no need to create an ill-defined role which working class students can’t even agree that they need.

Twitter: @josh_salisbury