Roar writer India Dunkley on socioeconomic elitism at King’s and the imposter syndrome it can instil in working class students.

There is a reason why we are paying so much for that piece of paper. Having the name “King’s College London” next to ours from this point forward, of course, is going to “get us places”. But God knows I so desperately hope it does not bring me back to the privileged and elitist environment of this Russell group university.

Perhaps the main problem was my blind-sighted naivety: coming from a state-funded, under-performing school from a rural part of England, going to a top London university was always going to be a culture shock. The wealth bubble of higher education may stem from money but it reaches far beyond material possession. It’s contacts, holidays, experiences and internships, and it all makes for the most privileged and exclusive seminar discussions. There is simply no preparing for this kind of environment. My middle-class rural life, although comfortable, just simply cannot compete with the madness of this wealth frenzy which seems to dominate every seminar room I step into and every Microsoft Teams meeting I join.

Illustrating the direness of this environment, I distinctly remember in one of my first seminars at university that we were asked to share our biggest fears with the class (apparently, this was deemed an “ice-breaker”). I would estimate that at least 70% of the answers stemmed from the idea of failure. One boy even went as far to as to express this hypothetically conceived view of failure as a job at McDonalds. I will never forget the shame in his imagining, as well as the complicit nods and pockets of laughter which broke out in agreement with this boy’s confession.

I am not naïve to the fact that top universities, such as my own, are riddled with zealous ambition – why shouldn’t they not be? I do, however, believe that there is something severely lacking in these highly desirable institutions if this is the kind of perspective that thrives in them. Students existing in such a limited and cossetted manner, with such shame for what is to some a lifeline, perpetuates the continuing legacy of elitism in top Russell group universities. What is more, this kind of environment pushes those who do not fit this privileged mould to the margins of the student body; that induces imposter syndrome and a sense of misbelonging.

You see, it’s rather difficult to artificially assert a shared understanding gained from experiences your family simply could not afford. Added to this induced embarrassment is an incessant compulsion to apologise for the things you haven’t seen and for the places you haven’t been.

Despite extensive programmes and schemes designed to aid students from under-privileged backgrounds to attend university, the number of state school students going to university has fallen for the first time since 2011. I consider this to be not only a tragic failing of  mobilisation efforts, but ultimately an inevitable one. Whilst bursaries and other forms of financial support are on offer at Kings and can contribute to alleviating material burden, they are just not enough to tackle the deep-rooted, elitist environment perpetuating rampant imposter syndrome. The fact is that King’s College London is complicit in privileging individuals with a wealth of experiences and contributions to academia that come with hefty price tags; for many they are just too far out of reach.

Things need to change. They need to change so that people, like myself, are not suckered into the false belief that their place at one of the top 50 universities in the world was contingent on the satisfaction of some quota, or by some mistake. They need to change in order to squash this crippling social stigma in relation to failure.  They need to change so that, as an institution, we are able to offer a genuinely inclusive environment: one which I’d be proud to return to.

India Dunkley

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