Being working class holds back our careers, say UK academics

Union’s survey finds majority feels social class determines career progression in higher education

九月 29, 2022
Climbing the ladder
Source: iStock

A majority of UK academics who identify as working class say their background has held them back in their careers, with accents, mannerisms and family income among the factors that have led to them to feeling disadvantaged.

More than half (53.9 per cent) of respondents to a University and College Union survey who work in the higher education sector feel that social class affects career progression, while nearly half (47.4 per cent) say it influences recruitment at their institution.

Similar numbers say that having a working-class background is a barrier to feeling included at their institution and can restrict networking opportunities.

“Not belonging is an embodied experience – you do not speak or look like those from other social classes, and I believe this tacitly infiltrates perceptions of competence, fit with a departmental culture and even collegiality – all criteria for recruitment, promotion, etc,” a working-class woman at a higher education provider in the north-west of England told the survey.

The UCU is calling for institutions to pay closer attention to the impact of class on their staff and to examine data to try to better understand participation, progression and retention rates by social class at both a staff and student level.

Social class should also be included in wider equality, diversity and inclusion work, the union says, as its survey found that those who are disabled, black, women, non-binary and/or LGBTQ+ were more likely to say that being working-class was a barrier.

The union’s general secretary, Jo Grady, said employers “that claim to care about inclusion and diversity need to start taking this seriously”.

The UCU polled 3,987 members between 15 March 2022 and 1 April 2022. Most (86.2 per cent) worked in higher education, while the rest worked in further education, adult and community colleges or prisons. Half of those who participated identified as working class, a figure that is below the 60 per cent average for the general population.

Despite the barriers to career progression they face, staff from a working-class background were, according to the survey, more likely to have a permanent contract then their peers, at 84 per cent, compared with 79 per cent.

However, those on fixed-term contracts say even precarious terms, which can serve as stepping stones to permanent posts, are more viable for those who have financial stability and assume that everyone has a parent or partner who can support them.

“It is a model of academia as a genteel hobby, rather than a living,” one survey participant commented.

Asked to consider personal attributes that might have led to them facing discrimination, a third (34.3 per cent) of higher education respondents say they feel that they have been disadvantaged or discriminated against because of their accent, while 29.6 per cent say the same about their dialect.

Dr Grady cautioned that the UK faces “moving backwards” on social mobility with working-class people “locked out” of post-16 education as both students and staff.



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