There is a major problem with writing about the pernicious prejudice in academia against people from working-class backgrounds; expressing such experience risks fatally damaging a career path governed by those conducting the prejudice.
Unconstrained by such chains, as I run my own business as a consultant to academics and institutions, I have the freedom to speak out about these biases that I have experienced first-hand. In working with universities, I regularly find that my cockney accent frames me long before my abilities are considered. As a mature student at Oxford and Cambridge, this prejudice was ever present as well. I can empathise with academics from working-class backgrounds, especially those working in Russell Group universities.
A criticism about any critical enquiry regarding this prejudice is that, as here, most consideration is anecdotal, allowing those in denial – and often the culprits– to dismiss any such claims as unreliable or insubstantial.
Prejudice against working-class people is a virulent weed whose extensive roots lie mostly unseen within the soil of society. In academia, its presence is a pernicious expression of middle-class power, sadly, sometimes consciously wielded. Maybe it is a tragedy but more likely a farce that those who, through their discipline, should know better are often the most disabled. When an eminent Marxist sociologist, for example, forcefully expressed to a junior colleague of working-class origins that it was unworthy of his status to engage with the cleaning staff and insisted that he cease being so friendly towards them, we can see the whole spectrum of this prejudice at work.
Prejudice can never be self-reflective because it is always about power and the defence of the status that power imparts. The roots of this power are deep, an essential element of our culture, fertilising the nature of our establishment. Academia would require a monumental act of confession, both institutionally and personally, to acknowledge the problem.
If such a spiritual cleansing were to occur how would one weed-free plot in the social garden be meaningful? Perhaps the point would be academic integrity. In denying chairs to worthy candidates because, as one academic of status, performance and outstanding REF delivery observed, “you are not really one of us are you?”, this prejudice, as with all prejudices, undermines the public good mission of our institutions.
People such as our Marxist sociologist in his prestigious chair instinctively act as threshold guardians to this hierarchy. Their defence is robustly, uncompromisingly, non-intellectual, as was the case when a powerful, established gate guardian told the author of a recent article that it would never be accepted for publication by any respectable journal because it was critical of research by “well-respected colleagues and friends” whom he had been with at Oxford.
Still, no matter how substantial this prejudice, those from working-class backgrounds develop our own fortitude. We are equally robust because we are used to being required to knock down the walls of prejudice. We constantly outperform mediocrity even though our recognition for such feats is usually less than if we were middle class. We know that in the eyes of most, we can only ever come from working-class backgrounds; there is no such thing as a “working-class academic”. To be an academic is to be middle-class.
While we may be allowed into the guild, we’ll never be considered a member of the club unless we lose that cockney accent. It’s an unworthy and inhumane strategy as damaging as the prejudice. The first step has to be recognition of this prejudice in action, not concealment. We need to be bold and forgiving together, in the interests of academic integrity and the purpose of higher education.
Jack Adams is a historian and academic adviser on professional stress and project management.
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