Universities must act to eliminate discrimination against working class students, including mockery of regional accents.

A Guardian investigation found widespread evidence that students at some of the country’s leading universities were mocked at their accents and backgrounds, causing them, in some cases, to drop out.

The analysis found that discrimination against working class students was particularly widespread in Russell Group universities. The group, which consists of 24 institutions, is known for excellent academic performance.

In a series of Guardian interviews, past and present students reported bullying and harassment because of their accents and working-class background. Some said their academic skills had been challenged because of the way they spoke.

The Social Mobility Commission (SMC), which monitors progress in improving social mobility in the UK, called the situation unacceptable and said accents have become a “tangible barrier” for some students.

This week the Guardian reported complaints of “toxic attitudes” towards some students from north Durham University. Last month the university opened an investigation after wealthy freshmen reportedly planned a contest to have sex with the poorest student they could find.

However, experiences with classism and prejudice are not limited to just Durham, said Sammy Wright, the SMC’s chief commissioner on schools and higher education. He said the government agency had spent 18 months investigating the different opportunities for young people depending on where they are from.

“We have found an ingrained pattern in certain areas where social mobility is very low, and often this is the only way to take advantage of the opportunities that arise from moving away from their place of education – going to university or Finding work, “said Wright, who is also Vice-Principle at Southmoor Academy in Sunderland.

“But we also found that social and economic disadvantages often hindered the possibility of moving out. Accent is part of it, along with cultural capital and social networks. In my own work at schools in the Northeast, the accent can become a marker for everything else, a tangible barrier – especially for the young people themselves who internalize a feeling of social inferiority. “

Wright said well-intentioned university outreach teams repeatedly failed in their efforts to reassure working class students. “They promise that their institutions are friendly and welcoming, but when this message is highlighted in a home country by bored middle-class students sent north to deliver the message, my students are rightly skeptical.”

The Sutton Trust, a charity that enables young people with disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education, urged top universities to do more to ensure an inclusive and supportive environment for all students.

Sir Peter Lampl, founder and chairman of the trust, described the experiences of some students as “scandalous”. “It is very difficult for young people on low incomes to get to top universities. For this and other reasons, it is totally unacceptable that they should be discriminated against while there, ”he said.

Analysis by the Office for Students (OfS), the state regulator for higher education, shows that virtually all of the communities with the lowest access to higher education live in industrial cities in northern England and the Midlands, as well as in coastal cities. For example, the latest data shows that 55% of young people in London have a higher education, but only 40% in the North East.

OfS Director for Fair Access and Fair Participation, Chris Millward, said the problem of accent bias speaks for deeper inequalities in the education system. “It is crucial that universities create an open and inclusive culture for all. There is no “right” accent or background in higher education – all students deserve the opportunity to develop, no matter where they are from, ”he said.

Sara Khan, a vice president of the National Union of Students, said that working class students were being sold a “myth of meritocracy,” but in some cases the reality was completely different.

“As long as working-class students have to pay for education, work alongside their studies to meet basic needs, and are burdened with debt for the rest of their lives, higher education will never be a welcoming environment for them,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is inevitable that such students will be exposed to prejudice and harassment in such a system, which is only the tip of the iceberg for classism in our educational system.”

The Russell Group was asked for a comment.

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