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17th May 2023

Fetishising financial hardship – when will university students stop playing ‘poverty simulator’?

The financial barriers to university are clear to students from low-income backgrounds. So why should we tolerate seeing our wealthier peers ‘playing poor’?
Fetishising financial hardship – when will university students stop playing ‘poverty simulator’?
Photo: Bank of England @ Flickr

Working class students are egregiously absent from the corridors of higher education. The University of Manchester’s review of its diversity performance provided the esteemed institution with little to boast about. As of the 2020/21 academic year, students from households with incomes of less than £25K per annum made up just 17% of the University’s cohort. The fact that a review into ‘diversity performance’ is needed in multicultural Manchester speaks volumes of the barriers in higher education. 

The ONS’s 2020/21 publication estimated that 30% of the UK population has an annual household income of less than £25K. The clear disparity between UoM’s 17% and ONS’s 30% makes the underrepresentation of the working class at university irrefutable.  

As part of the 17%, the news that I am in the minority is not a shock to me. From the moment ‘deprived area’ was plastered over my university application, like a bargaining chip, I knew I would be surrounded by people from more well-off backgrounds. Even though I was content with my state education, I was being treated as though I was merely here to fill a university quota.

Watching the silent trepidation of my mum, who always seemed to be waiting for payday, ingrained a respect for her strength in me. She would ceaselessly repeat the phrase “money gives you choices” to me as a child. My brother and I would playfully regurgitate it back to her before bed, the sincerity of her words failing to register with us.

I am not going to pretend that my mum’s four words of wisdom prepared me to be a part of this 17%. I expected to face stigma if people realised I received the maximum student loan. But I did not suppose that my imposter syndrome would take root in my culture. My working-class origins were not mocked in the way I expected – they were impersonated.  

As I made the decision to study 250 miles north of my hometown, moving to Manchester at 18 years old, I found the working class struggle to be fetishised by my peers. As they forfeited home comforts for rudely maintained flats and terraced houses, my middle-class cohort treated their taste of deprivation as a term-time game – one which I label their go at a ‘poverty simulator’.

Why do those who dominate society seek to impersonate those of us who are financially subordinate? I find that privileged students find solace in their grungy subculture – there is an ease that comes with the facade that we all get to university on equal grounds. We are one and the same – each as acquainted with adversity as the next. But this narrative amounts to no more than a fictitious comfort to those who have not grappled with material deprivation.

Coming from an affluent household has become increasingly ‘uncool’ among students. Gemma Brown, a Manchester graduate, observed the well-off ‘playing poor’ during her time at university. Epitomising the tension between poverty as an “aesthetic choice” for some and an “unavoidable reality” for others, she echoes my anger at those who “can pick and choose what they like from the working class lifestyle without facing any of the challenges and social barriers that go alongside it”.

In the face of this trend towards charity shop thrifting and glamourising living in the overdraft, our experience has been trivialised. But mimicking our clothes and speech only serves to satirise the poverty that we are fighting to escape.

No doubt, an element of budgeting is a part of the universal student experience. One Oxford student, Angelica Kanu, has described the burden of financial stress on her university experience by telling the BBC that “every single day is just a battle of being as cheap as possible”. 

Further, the National Union of Students’ Cost of Living Report found that, of the 3,417 students surveyed, 92% said that the cost of living crisis had an impact on their mental health, with 31% categorising it as having a ‘major impact’. Evidently, being a student is by no means a financial walk in the park. 

However, the safety net provided for some by the ‘bank of mum and dad’ illuminates a clear class divide. 53% of students at university receive help from their parents with the cost of their university fees according to a study by Halifax . 

My student debt will no doubt haunt me for decades to come. Unlike the government, the ‘bank of mum and dad’ does not come knocking for repayment as the job market beckons.

Anxieties around running out of money evidently look very different from student to student. For those playing poverty simulator, it is a brag at a pre-drink, but for those who have felt the grip of financial hardship, it is a crippling burden. What constitutes a careless overspend for wealthy students constitutes a crisis for the poorest of us.

This is where the insult lies. In trivialising poverty, being penniless at university has become trendy. The very people I hear claiming they are ‘broke’ in term-time inundate me with an Instagram feed of ski trips and safaris during holidays while I wait tables for meagre tips in the hospitality sector.

In the midst of a cost of living crisis predated by 13 years of Conservative austerity, the class divide is only widening. It is in this context – one of unprecedented hardship for our poorest – that the insult of the student ‘poverty simulator’ is truly exasperated.

While my ‘deprived area’ status may well have helped me fill a Russell Group quota, the romanticisation of my background at university needs to be addressed. Hearing my peers complain that they are ‘broke’ while they sit on their Trust Funds feels like an insult – not a point of relatability. Despite an increasing progression rate into university for the nation’s poorest, the university experience remains tainted by the fetishisation of material disadvantage. This leaves me asking, when will university students stop playing ‘poverty simulator’?

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