Scholars from blue-collar backgrounds continue to face barriers to advancement in academia well into their careers, the chair of a new support group for working-class academics in the UK has claimed.
Geraldine Van Bueren, professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary University of London, said that the Association of Working Class Academics intended to provide advice and assistance for younger colleagues from socially deprived backgrounds, as well as students thinking about a career in academia.
“It remains very difficult to get into academia if you have a working-class background, given the costs of obtaining a doctorate,” Professor Van Bueren told Times Higher Education.
But older academics also faced adversity related to their lower-status backgrounds, insisted Professor Van Bueren, who is also a visiting fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford.
“I am not sure that the barriers faced by working-class academics break down at the middle stage of their careers,” she said.
Such barriers included “class prejudice about accent, less financial resources to attend conferences for postgraduate students, derogatory comments about class and the absence of any financial cushion”, added Professor Van Bueren.
These problems were often exacerbated by the fact that many scholars felt unable to publicly identify themselves in class terms, meaning that peer support was often hard to find, added Professor Van Bueren.
“People do feel reluctant to come out in this way – they feel vulnerable and don’t want to be accused of moaning about disadvantage,” she explained, adding that it was nonetheless “an important part of one’s identity that should be recognised”.
“Last year, a US academic wrote that it was easier for him to come out as gay in academia than to tell colleagues that he was working class, and people only seem to be happy talking about this topic anonymously,” added Professor Van Bueren, whose father worked in factories in London’s East End and was later a taxi driver.
“I’m a barrister and an honorary silk, so perhaps I am someone you wouldn’t immediately identify as working class, but I was also educated at a comprehensive and my first job as a child was working in Ridley Road market,” Professor Van Bueren continued.
“By making ourselves more visible, we would like to break down some of the stereotypes about working-class academics and also improve social mobility.”
The association, whose committee includes academics from both older and modern universities in the UK, as well as older and younger scholars, is also setting up a sister organisation in Australia.
It would also aim to improve the quality of data on the number of working-class academics in the UK, said Professor Van Bueren. Class is not considered a protected characteristic under the 2010 Equality Act, so “it would be fairly challenging to find a way to report it accurately”, she said.
“We have written to Universities UK and to the universities minister to offer our assistance in working together to assist social mobility,” she said, adding that this work might include exploring ways in which the association could assist in mentoring both students and academics.