Universities must embrace working-class academics, students and culture

In the absence of an express prohibition of class discrimination, a new code offers a beginning for dialogue, says Geraldine Van Bueren

October 9, 2021
Terraced houses next to a deck-access council tower illustrating op-ed calling for recognition of rights for working-class students, staff and academics
Source: iStock

Despite all the modern prohibitions on discrimination against numerous characteristics, it remains lawful in the UK, the US and many other countries for universities to discriminate on the basis of class.

Some academics report that they have found it harder to come out as working class in universities than to come out as gay. And evidence drawn from working-class academics and students, gathered during mentoring meetings and seminars held by the Alliance of Working Class Academics, demonstrates that the experience of prejudice and other hurdles is common.

The sessions, initiated by the University of Bradford’s Carole Binns and organised by the University of Winchester’s Craig Johnston and the University of Nottingham’s Charlie Davis, also found that there is only limited recognition of the scholastic importance of working-class culture.

This is why the alliance, which I chair, has created the world’s first University Code on Equal Opportunity for Working Class Students and Academics. The code, which can be adapted to different global cultures and terminology, calls upon universities to acknowledge that students and academics from a richly diverse range of working-class/blue-collar heritages add economic, social and cultural value to communities, the state and the global community – as well as enhance the scholarship, work, productivity and research impact of university communities themselves.

The code also requires support for working-class students to access postgraduate qualifications. Although there are efforts around master’s programmes, the alliance’s support sessions revealed that many unacknowledged and unaddressed obstacles block the pursuit of doctoral studies. Social mobility policies mainly focus on undergraduate education, which limits the career options for many working-class students. They also stereotype these students’ intellectual capacities by assuming that they don’t and should not aspire to doctoral studies.

Some of the code’s provisions are drawn from international law. These include the requirement that universities be guided by United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 4 (provision of inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all). Institutions should ensure equal opportunity, improve equitable access and enhance mobility and accountability by the United Nations’ targeted date of 2030.

An express prohibition of class discrimination is the desirable longer-term outcome. However, in the interim, our code provides a practical and constructive beginning for dialogue. Its approach to class celebrates that to come from a working-class heritage is to come from a culture that is richly diverse and intersectional, in recognition of which it calls for universities to include black, white and Asian working-class scholars and students in their equality practices and policies.

Since class is omitted from the UK’s Equality Act 2010, there is no legal duty on universities to gather data on the numbers, salaries and promotions of working-class academics, or on support for students of working-class heritage who wish to pursue doctorates. But the code requires universities to provide for equal treatment of working-class-heritage staff in relation to recruitment, retention, salaries and promotion policies and practices. It also urges universities to guarantee equal treatment of working-class-heritage students and to assist them in overcoming hurdles to full participation in university life and to seeking employment.

The code has been sent to the UK government and major political parties, as well as to Universities UK, the Russell and MillionPlus groups, the University and College Union and the Office for Students. It has also been sent to Unesco, with calls for its implementation.

An aspect of the devaluation of working-class culture is that universities generally do not include the rich range of working-class histories and experiences in their curricula. In law, for example, emphasis has traditionally been placed on John Locke, a lawyer’s son and slave profiteer, and his concept of a social contract, and less on Tom Paine, a corset-maker’s son and abolitionist. However, Paine’s concept of humanity in his Rights of Man is one of the earliest scholarly arguments for a wide range of state-guaranteed human rights.

What is in question is the real extent of university diversity. If some members are unable to raise matters central to their identity, this impoverishes not only the individual but the whole university community.

Geraldine Van Bueren QC is professor emerita at Queen Mary University of London. She holds a Leverhulme Fellowship for her work on class, social mobility and the law. She is chair of the Alliance of Working Class Academics.

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Reader's comments (7)

Like many people of my age, I am only a step or two away from working class roots. However, I was determined to become a citizen of the "country of the educated" that has no boundaries. Obsession with class, "culture" and location should not impinge on academic life. It seems that there is a desire to wallow in class issues rather than getting on with the job. My grandparents worked in factories, neither of my parents went to university but I have moved on in life. You cannot become truly educated and not change - watch the film or play "Educating Rita".
PS. It is the job of universities to change the world and their students, not to blindly accept any "culture" and any status quo without question.
Universities must embrace academics and students of ALL classes and cultures. Entry into universities should not be based on social and family background. Those who are from wealthy and privileged families should not be given advantage for entry into universities but nor should those from working class background enjoy advantage either. When we say higher education should be based on "elitism", we mean elite in terms of intellectual and academic capability and not family background. Hence if someone from council housing has greater academic capability than someone from Kensington, then the former should get priority for entry into his/her desire university. But that student from council housing should not be admitted in priority to that student from Kensington simply because he/she lives in council housing.
I am a working class academic and I am proud to hold a doctorate and be a professor. There are limited working class role models in academia so we must double our efforts to provide an inclusive environment that provides opportunities for all irrespective of their social standing.
I am a working class academic and I am proud to hold a doctorate and be a professor. There are limited working class role models in academia so we must double our efforts to provide an inclusive environment that provides opportunities for all irrespective of their social standing.
I am a working class academic and I am proud to hold a doctorate and be a professor. There are limited working class role models in academia so we must double our efforts to provide an inclusive environment that provides opportunities for all irrespective of their social standing.
The struggle for working class professional services staff is even harder, yet you have not even mentioned them in your article or included them in your alliance. A shameful ommission.

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