Working or studying at university was once reserved for the elite.
In the past, the academy was not designed for working-class people but, even today, working-class identity is still problematic in higher education.
Current ideas about social mobility still present working-class identity as a site from which to escape. Universities are seen as rescuing working-class students from poverty, social exclusion and unemployment, and enhancing their life chances as long as they conform to current academic cultures. This deficit construction of working-class people has been the subject of considerable academic debate.
In 1997, Pat Mahony and Christine Zmroczek published an edited collection of essays on the theme Class Matters: “Working Class” Women’s Perspectives On Social Class. The book foregrounded working-class women’s experiences of studying and working in higher education, challenging the trend to talk about working-class experiences from a middle-class perspective. Twenty years later, little progress has been made in this field.
The introduction of tuition fees and the rise of temporary teaching contracts, allied to the inherent hierarchical structure and middle-class male dominance of the university, has unquestionably fuelled class discrimination. We urgently need new critical theoretical vocabularies, values and political actors to start thinking differently about social class in the context of higher education.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research (Cheer) at the University of Sussex recently invited Pat and Christine, along with some of the original contributors to the book, to debate, “Does Class Still Matter?” with newer researchers from working-class backgrounds in today’s academy. By sharing intergenerational experiences of studying and working in higher education, it was clear that the issue of social class goes beyond demographics and the simplistic notion of counting more working-class people into the academy as an indicator of social progress.
Academics from working-class backgrounds can be problematically located in so far as they can be disconnected from their own communities and not fully accepted or acknowledged in middle-class academic cultures.
Speakers cited countless examples of misrecognition and disrespect for their academic contributions and expertise, as well as a generalised feeling of not belonging to networks and cultures that were controlled by the elite. Class discrimination remains a significant barrier in women’s academic progress, often tightly bound up with other inequalities, including ethnicity and sexualities.
Exclusion could be covert – based on lack of invitations to networks, committees and influential positions in the academic community – or more overt, with discussion about how accents still sealed people into class identities.
Despite steps to improve access and equalities in universities, and several decades of widening participation, there is an institutional failure to recognise that working-class people bring a wider range of understandings and life experiences to the academy.
As a result, and regardless of their intellectual achievements, capability or potential, working-class staff and students are sidelined or often feel that they have to overwork to prove their value.
The relentless struggle to demonstrate worth and counter class prejudice represents an additional workload for working-class people. It can also sow the seeds of self-doubt as meritocracy and “excellence” are often cited as a justification for overlooking marginalised groups. Speakers reported examples of how they had repeatedly been made to feel worthless. The challenge was not to internalise this negativity and to stay creative and committed to one’s intellectual work.
So how do we improve the situation and ensure that social class is not a barrier to higher education?
I would like to see universities appoint and promote more diverse staff, and question how and which leaders are appointed. In addition to the obvious male dominance of leadership, leaders are still overwhelmingly drawn from elite backgrounds. We need to challenge current funding regimes, such as tuition fees, and develop more inclusive curricula.
We also need to forge local, national and international alliances between academia and activism and strengthen trade unions.
Most importantly, though, we need to understand, through our research, how social class is a process, and to challenge the myriad ways in which academia reinforces and rewards class privilege. For example, opportunities for internationalising the student experience via study-abroad programmes are still overwhelmingly enjoyed by those from wealthier family backgrounds.
Over the past 10 years, Cheer has developed national and international esteem as a hive of original, critical and feminist scholarship investigating the social, educational and cognitive injustices present in higher education. Cheer’s research on women and higher education leadership found that while women are being overlooked and rejected from senior leadership positions, they are also doing the rejecting and often do not see leadership as an object of desire. The research led to the development of the Aurora programme by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.
Meanwhile, Cheer has also conducted policy research into widening participation in sub-Saharan Africa, and with Roma communities in Europe. Cheer found that policy change is not enough to transform organisational cultures.
Gendered, classed and racialised power is relayed via everyday practices and exclusions and micropolitical practices. Policy needs to be accompanied by structured change interventions and continuing statistical monitoring and evaluation.
Rather than trying to fit more under-represented groups into existing structures, we need to spend time imagining the type of inclusive university of the future that we desire.
Louise Morley is director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research, University of Sussex.