Wills and Kate, red trousers, endless golf courses, Barbours, Oxbridge rejects… these were the images conjured in my relatives’ minds when I first told them I’d be coming to St Andrews in September. And, perhaps with the exception of the red trousers, these are almost exclusively markers of the posh British upper class.
I won’t lie. The reputation St Andrews holds as a university for rich kids who weren’t smart enough to get into Oxbridge scared me before I got here. I dreaded exclusion, classism, and social hierarchies.
Since arriving, in the month and a half or so that I’ve been here, I haven’t been overtly confronted by gaggles of students boasting about their summer homes on the continent and how much they spent on shoes last week. But – and this is a big but – that doesn’t mean that St Andrews is at all free from elitism.
This is real talk. Let’s just stop here and establish what I mean by ‘elitism’. Google, every student’s best friend, says it’s “the belief that a society or system should be led by an elite; the dominance of a society or system by an elite; the superior attitude or behaviour associated with an elite.” I’m referring here to the last two definitions:
“The dominance of a society or system by an elite; the superior attitude or behaviour associated with an elite.”
And that’s just it, isn’t it – the way that some people behave, the idea that they are somehow more important, more worthy, than others, just because of how much money they have. Elitism here is intrinsically tied to class, and class is intrinsically tied to money.
Elitism in St Andrews isn’t always obvious. It’s in the expectation that people wear Hunter wellies to Welly Ball; it’s in the assumption that you can pay £5k+ for accommodation (don’t cite Albany at me, there’s only 340 rooms and it’s being demolished at the end of this year); it’s in the £60 ball tickets. Yes, it’s entirely possible to get by without these things. But we all come to university to have fun (and perhaps learn along the way). Where we live, what we do on weekends – these are things that contribute to the quality of life in St Andrews, and I’m afraid that here, quality of life is expensive.
Going back to our definition of elitism: The people who have the money to have fun here, to have a high quality of life, are able to live loudly and proudly. Elitism in St Andrews is undercover, but it’s undeniable. You see it in the Facebook albums of your friends smiling in designer dresses at hideously expensive balls, you hear it in the overheard “why don’t you just buy x item?” as if it’s no big deal to spend money at whim, you smell it in your classmates’ daily purchased coffees rather than your Tesco’s Instant.
What can we do about it? How do we combat this insidious elitism and classism that you don’t quite notice until it’s pointed out to you, and then you can never un-see? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m not saying that if you have money, you shouldn’t use it. But perhaps sensitivity is key. Excessive displays of wealth aren’t cool, and to utilise an oldie but goodie, think before you act.
Put yourself into other people’s shoes. Maybe don’t throw your expensive laptop around, maybe suggest eating in instead of going out on weekends with friends. Maybe so many little things you can do every day that make the difference when someone is conscious of money. Thoughtfulness makes the world go ’round, and your awareness of other people’s situations may mean more than you know.