I know anti-Northern discrimination at British universities is real because I've experienced it

Jack Rear
·7-min read
Troubled history: students at the University of Durham have complained of toxic behaviour - Alamy 
Troubled history: students at the University of Durham have complained of toxic behaviour - Alamy

The joke about my accent is that it’s not actually that strong. Growing up in rural Lancashire, people would constantly ask if I was from the South, it wasn’t until I got to university that I realised my Northern roots were not only noticeable but marked me out to my peers. 

It hit me like a sledgehammer the first time it came up at a flat party a few weeks into my first term at Royal Holloway University of London. A fifty pound note was waved in my face by a fellow student, “I bet you’d sleep with me for this wouldn’t you?” he laughed in perfect RP. He’d listened to me talking to a friend, heard my accent, assumed I was poor because I was Northern. 

That was the first time, the most flagrant, the one that made me spot it. After that I couldn’t stop noticing the way fellow students picked apart the way I spoke, parroting words and phrases back to me, laughing as they made assumptions about my family, my upbringing, even my intelligence. A friend from Preston who’s accent was deeper got worse, outright sneering both behind her back and to her face. 

I played along for the most part, taking the jokes and giving as good as I got. Other Northerners softened their accents or worked harder to assimilate. But it wasn’t so easy for some; my friend from Preston retreated into herself, certain that she wouldn’t be allowed to fit in so why should she keep trying? 

Perhaps as Northerners at a southern university this was only to be expected. Rather more vexing, was the recent story about Lauren White, a Durham student who grew up 15 miles from the university, who has experienced a “toxic attitude” towards her accent and background from fellow students and staff. Since then, White has interviewed other Northern students and found that her experiences were depressingly common. 

Students White spoke to cited name-calling (‘dirty northerner’, ‘chav’) and being belittled for their assumed economic backgrounds. One spoke of hearing fellow students describe sleeping with a Northerner as ‘rolling in the muck.’

Almost everyone, regardless of where they come from feels some degree of alienation, or some struggle to fit in, especially as a first year student in an unfamiliar environment, but there’s a subtlety to this kind of relentless treatment that starts to feel like death by a thousand cuts.

Jack Cork from Leeds, who graduated from Durham in summer 2019 with a first in Modern Languages And Cultures and the top marks in his year for Spanish told me that he became self-conscious speaking aloud in seminar after seeing classmates’ reactions to his Yorkshire accent. 

“Whenever I spoke about things in class, even though I'd done a lot of background reading, they’d look at me as though I didn't know what I was talking about,” he explains. “It was quite subtle and implicit. No one directly said to me that I didn't know what I was talking about or that I was stupid, but the impression I got was that people didn't take what I was saying seriously.” 

The reaction made Cork doubt himself. He describes feeling impostor syndrome, that he “didn't deserve to be there and didn't fit in.” By the end of his degree, despite consistently getting top marks “I still felt like someone from the North wasn't meant to get those kinds of results,” he says. “I was made to feel that you're not meant to excel at a university like Durham if you're from the North and you went to a state school and you're working class.”

northern university students - Andrew Crowley
northern university students - Andrew Crowley

“I don't think people realise the affect that bullying and bigoted biases have on people's self-esteem, mental health and confidence,” adds 32-year-old Laura Hamilton who spoke to me about her experiences of discrimination on account of her Scottish background while studying at St Andrew’s University between 2006 and 2011. 

“I've got a very soft middle class Edinburgh accent and a lot of English people assumed I was English, until I told them I was from Edinburgh,” she explains, “and then they would ignore me from then on…  I got the impression that for them, Scottish students were second class citizens. It feels weird to be othered in your own country. I experienced a lot of English people tell me that Scotland is third world, it's just England's colony, it doesn't have any culture whatsoever etc.

“What I found difficult to reconcile was the sheer confidence of the students who say such ignorant and offensive things - especially when they had chosen to go to university in a place they looked down on. A few students I knew either put on a different accent for uni, or added another name to their surname so it was double-barrelled ‘to fit in’.”

Of course, relative merits and demerits of having a regional accent is a tired subject written about to death. As is classism at universities. And, yes, it certainly works the other way around too. Those who speak with received pronunciation or are from the home counties certainly aren’t immune to assumptions about their background or accusations of being ‘posh’. 

The difference, however, is that prejudices against the North and, in fact, almost any region outside of the South East goes further than jokes and name-calling, infiltrating students’ prospects in serious ways.

Elizabeth Thompson, a final year student on a Wildlife Media degree at the University of Cumbria, originally from Formby, explains that she felt her tutors would look down on her for her Liverpudlian accent, dismissing her ideas while celebrating Southern classmates for making the same or similar points. 

“At first I thought it was me being sensitive but then my classmates began commenting on the way one tutor spoke to me,” says Thompson. “It wasn’t hidden or underlying; it was right in my face for everyone to see.” 

Thompson claims that during a complaint meeting, course heads told her that similar complaints had been made about the tutor (and not just by students) but ultimately dismissed her concerns.

“I hate speaking in public now,” she adds. “I’ve been too scared to apply for graduate jobs in the south in case I find the same stigma. Frankly, I don’t think I could mentally handle much more of being put down for a reason I cannot help.”

Meanwhile Cork describes how Durham’s careers service catered almost exclusively for students looking for jobs in the South East, making him doubt his decision to look for a career in the North. 

“When I was graduating and applying for jobs, people found it quite strange and unexpected that I wanted to stay in the North and not move down to London,” he says. “They treated it as though you can't be successful if you're in the North of England, which I just don't think is true at all.”

White has called on Durham to provide more support for Northern students, but these problems go further than one institution. It’s past time universities start to engage with the fact that many students feel disenfranchised from the moment they open their mouths. 

Have you been treated differently because of your regional accent? Tell us in the comments section below