University staff serve us drinks and clear our rubbish. But do they have our respect?Alex Matthews

Cambridge, on the whole, is a fairly liberal place. From the Daily Mail on one end of the political media spectrum, to Vice on the other, we aren’t short of a bashing for being posh toffs in drinking societies who sit around quaffing port. This reputation, as I discovered soon after matriculating, is unjustified: Cambridge really isn’t the bastion of elitism that it’s made out to be. However, if there’s one thing that really needs addressing, it’s the way that Cambridge students treat members of staff external to the student body.

Classism is the elephant in the room here. You only need to take one look at the statistics to see that we are an inherently privileged bunch: even with the percentage coming down, 39% of us are privately educated, not including international students, or those who went to top-end grammar schools. Yet the issue doesn’t lie with how those students who aren’t so well off are treated; in my experience, most people don’t really care what school you went to, and people are friendly to one another regardless of background. The problem is the way Cambridge students treat those external to the student body who they feel are inferior to them.

Buttery staff, bedders, taxi drivers, bouncers. The amount of arrogant comments I’ve heard towards and about those members of the working class that Cambridge students frequently come into contact with astounds me. It’s something we as a university often fail to address. The CUSU Women’s Campaign is admirably active, issues regarding LGBT+ welfare, racism and mental health are all addressed by the student body. Petitions, campaigns and posters – whether I agree with them or not – it makes me proud to be part of such an active community that truly cares about these issues. But we’re shockingly silent when it comes to classism.

Why is it that the way we talk about the working class is so low down on the agenda? Maybe it’s because, purely by being here, we will probably never have to face the issues that the working classes will have to endure. Yes, the majority of the students here voted Labour or Lib Dem. Yet it’s precisely these people who are so active on Facebook campaigning for the mansion tax and the safety of the NHS that I hear drunkenly verbally abusing the staff at Gardie’s when their cheesy chips are taking too long.

Even in our everyday conversations, it’s becoming more and more noticeable to me how much derogatory language we use to talk about these people. Chavs, povos, peasants. I’ll put my hands up here – I’m guilty of doing it too. Of course, it’s supposed to be ironic, but how far can we claim to be mocking the Daily Mail when so much of our dialogue is made up by slandering those whose job it is to make our lives easier? If we were to refer to ethnic minorities with the same disregard as I’ve heard people talk about University support staff, there would be outrage.

It seems that, not just in this university, but on a more general scale, those who work menial jobs are caught between a rock and a hard place. Those who claim benefits and don’t go out to work are vilified - they’re lazy scroungers, living off of the backs of the hard-working taxpayers. And yet when they do have a job to support themselves and their families, they are treated with disdain. I can personally vouch for this: when working in the retail sector, the people I served often looked at me as if I was something they’d stepped in. At least I got to fall back on the knowledge of my privileged position as a student, simply working to pay my way through one of the world’s most prestigious universities. I couldn’t imagine this treatment from the perspective of somebody with very little prospect of social mobility.

So how do we tackle this problem that seems to come part and parcel with our privilege as students? The first step comes from a recognition of the problem – we’re not all perfect, and it’s all too easy to make a joke or a throw away comment about those who work so hard to make our lives easier. Put simply, we need to treat people better. These people are not beneath you, so don’t treat them as if they are. Offer your cleaner a cup of tea. Tip your taxi driver. Stop tutting and making a fuss when your coffee is taking a little longer than you’d like. Start recognising the people in the service industry for what they are – people, who are equal to you, and deserve to be treated as such.


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