Classism is Entrenched in British Student Social Clubs

Social clubs at Harvard, Yale, and colleges across the U.S. were founded in the style of the hardwood-paneled and thoroughly buttoned-up upper-class societies of the United Kingdom. Now, more than ever, these groups represent entrenched class prejudice and social stratification. 

I studied at Cambridge, the second-best university in the world to Harvard, and one still racked to the core with the unavoidable truths of the British class system. Here, social clubs — among them the myriad elite drinking societies with their upper-class parties — reflect the prejudices of an education system (and society) that looks more Victorian than ever. 

Last year, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government raised higher education fees to nearly $14,000 a year. The politicians responsible — including Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne — were former members of the Bullingdon Club, an elite society at Oxford University notorious for its high living. 

The same can be said for Cambridge’s own elite Pitt Club. Founded as a gentleman’s club in 1835, the Pitt Club is an all-male, invite-only club similar to the Bullingdon. Until recently, it had its own “certain schools only” rule. You wouldn’t get a look if you didn’t go to one of the top schools in the country. 

At Cambridge and Oxford, elite universities which admit more students from the top five high schools in the country than 2,000 other high schools, these clubs present an (admittedly true) microcosm of society — but an unwelcome one nonetheless. 

I asked a handful of friends from university what was good about these clubs and others like them. Their answer: absolutely nothing. “What good can you even say about them?” one said. It is hard to disagree. 

Male drinking societies invite female groups on social “swaps” which often look more like societal prostitution than a night out. Girls were invited based on popularity and attractiveness. A few years ago, one club hosted a summertime lawn event. Men were instructed to wear dinner jackets and bow-ties. The female guests? Bikinis. 

One particular restaurant in Cambridge often falls prey to these events, where future politicians, bankers, and opinion-makers drink, eat, and vomit, treating their waiters like a lumpen-proletariat underclass. 

Figures already suggest that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds simply cannot afford to go to university anymore. Instead, they face the uncertain future of the job market in which 20-25% of young men and women in Britain are unemployed — a figure closer to 50% for young black men. 

Earlier this year, I interviewed a 17-year-old would-be student. He couldn’t afford the tuition and so looked for work. There were no jobs. This is the same fate faced by students across the UK now.   

Looking at the facts, it is difficult to know where to begin. Criticizing class-ridden social clubs is like criticizing a class-ridden government. Thankfully, with 23 millionaires out of 29 ministers in last year’s new Cabinet and 54% of our elected parliament educated privately (compared with 7% of the national population), we can try to kill two birds with one stone. 

The important thing to do is just that — criticize. By marginalizing these voices and their influence over the majority, change will eventually come. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Tom Rollins

I grew up in the North of England, which has always defined my politics. I'm interested in class, free-market capitalism and Western imperialism, industrial relations and disputes, foreign affairs, international activism, and neo-conservatism. Since graduating with an English Literature degree from Cambridge last year, followed by a postgrad journalism diploma from the University of Sheffield; I now eke out a living freelancing as a political journalist in London, where I live with my girlfriend and 10 cats. I'm currently interning with PolicyMic from the UK. In the past I have written for The Guardian, ASLEF Journal, Northern Echo, Substance.tv, Trolls and Ponies magazine and Varsity, but I also regularly blog at Enlightenment Blues: http://enlightenmentblues.wordpress.com/

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