University of Sydney students have a reputation for pretentiousness. The sandstone buildings and international reputation establish a stereotype. But the proliferation of “fuck off UTS” memes, and preponderance of questions like “where the fuck is [insert Western Sydney suburb]?”, suggest it is one that comes from a real place.
These comments are usually intended to be harmless, often said in an ironic or playful way. But intention does not negate effect, nor does a penchant for irony explain why these comments are acceptable in the first place. Behind every “fuck UTS” joke and TAFE criticism is a classist assumption that people who don’t make it to USyd, or University more generally, are somehow less capable, financially secure, and likely to be successful than USyd students. Far from offering a fun escape from this assumption, a campus culture synonymous with Courtyard brunches and pricey balls only reinforces it.
Raised by a construction-worker father and a full-time mother of four children, I often feel out of place at USyd, conspicuously the poorest person in the group. The class expectations are subtle but jarring; ranging from bewilderment over the fact I don’t have a passport and have never gone overseas, to having to hear classmates complain about being too well off for scholarship or Centrelink. Rich people never think they’re that rich; but for me, scholarships and Centrelink aren’t bonuses but necessities that ensure I have the same access to education as everyone else.
And that’s exactly why USyd’s social scene proceeds from class assumptions so deeply and unthinkingly.
One need only look at SUBS’ 2016 “Daddy’s Yacht Party” cruise, and SASS’ “Hampton’s Cruise” for proof. Both events exude a self-conscious bourgeois indulgence, one that loses its ironic edge when one realises that the students in attendance can afford a ticket as easily as they can acquire an appropriately ironic (and appropriately expensive) outfit.
Not satisfied with entrenching upper class superiority, the scene also likes to remind students of the horror of being working class, as in SUBS’ tradie-themed cruise: “It’s Hammer Time”. The Facebook promotional material reads like a parody of people trying to parody tradies.
“You don’t have to be a tradie to know that any discount counts!” reads the Facebook post advertising early-bird tickets. In a later promotional video, a frustrated project manager catches “his damn tradies on yet another break,” playing games, going on smokos, and eating servo food instead of working. Despite gesturing towards a blokey appreciation of Australiana, the overall image presents tradies as lazy, unkempt, uneducated men who catcall women during work breaks. When I think of my father, who built our house from the ground up alongside full-time work, who works through exhaustion and injury, and will likely be working past retirement age to support our family, this depiction is not only inaccurate but also deeply insulting. It’s an image borne of detachment; an inside joke I wasn’t supposed to hear.
USyd is not particularly accessible. To perform at an equivalent level to an average student from a high-ranking high school, a student at an underperforming institution needs to achieve exceptional results. When not surrounded by a culture of academia, or provided with the resources to excel, this feat is momentarily difficult. Costs associated with moving from rural areas, buying resources such as textbooks and laptops, and the hours spent in commute can make university an unrealistic option. For many people, pursuing alternative pathways, like TAFE, is a financially-responsible life decision. Tradies perform essential functions for society; their work is objectively valuable, necessary, well-paid, and in demand. That tradies are still subject to disrespectful class stereotypes is frankly unacceptable, as is the view that trades are last ditch resorts for mystery mark ATAR students rather than legitimate career paths.
It’s a valid achievement to have received a high ATAR and gotten into a prestigious institution, and university graduates do tend to fare better income-wise than individuals without bachelors degrees. However, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking the amount of hard work is the only factor determining who gets into Usyd.
Even an average student, with greater access to opportunities and resources, is likely to outperform a talented student who doesn’t have the same support. USyd’s embrace of bourgeois culture—ironically or not—excludes people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, in the process perpetuating the view that USyd isn’t a place for them. As USyd continues to become more socioeconomically diverse these problems will persist; it’s high time the university and its students wake up to the class biases they’ve been mindless to.