Leader: Prejudice by any other name

Gender and ethnicity are subject to constant scrutiny, but middle and upper-class dominance of academia must be challenged

November 27, 2008

It's called the common room, but it seems there are probably few places you are less likely to find anyone "common". It is rare to hear a working-class or strong regional accent: the middle and upper classes dominate. As our columnist Gary Day puts it, class is "the great unspoken in higher education".

Working-class academics might not have the bile that John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, reserves for those of higher social classes whom he perceives to belittle him, but they seem to share a feeling that an accent that isn't "proper" still stands out.

Instead of Prescott's dinosaur roar, most working-class academics express a mixture of bemusement and irritation about the patronising behaviour they endure. Most are phlegmatic in the face of indignities such as being escorted to the door of a Cambridge college by a porter who assumes the young man with a Scottish accent is an impostor.

While the slights may be annoying for the individuals concerned, class prejudice in the academy has serious consequences. When a high-flying academic with a northern working-class accent says that he "just knows" not to apply for jobs at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, that is a shameful waste of talent.

Yet it could be worse. A report from the Sutton Trust shows that academia is not as "posh" a profession as the law, politics or even journalism. Its leadership is drawn largely from the ranks of the state educated.

But the worrying news is that most were educated in grammar schools before the introduction of the comprehensive system. The report is unequivocal in its conclusions that the grammar system of the 1960s and 1970s offered poor working-class children "a launch pad to academic careers and other opportunities". As these schools are phased out, the big question, it says, "is whether the current high proportion of state-educated university heads continues".

"It is a tremendous statement about the social mobility that grammar schools provided," says one of this generation of university heads. But without such help, crossing the great social divide is not easy, and what hope is there for future generations of working-class scholars and vice-chancellors when areas of the curriculum such as classic literature are being ignored because of their perceived class origins?

Unfortunately, class has been left behind in the unremitting focus on gender and ethnicity, so perhaps it should not come as a surprise that white working-class boys are now bottom of the educational heap. Even in the admirable King's College London Extended Medical Degree Programme, an access scheme that lowers university entry requirements for students from local poorly performing schools, only two of the 300 students so far have been white, working class and male.

Day and others raise the point that if prejudices about the working class persist within academia, how can the widening-participation agenda really be taken seriously? There is a patronising attitude towards them by many of those responsible for improving access, "as if they are on the sick list and need help". We don't even know what to call them, opting for "non-traditional". Does it really help to promote inclusivity if you are singled out as not a traditional student, ie, not one of those who has a historical right to be there?

"I assume most working-class people are intelligent," says one working-class academic. "Not everybody assumes that about me."

As Eliza Doolittle said: "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she's treated."

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