Dear Universities UK,
You recently set up a Social Mobility Advisory Group to make recommendations to the government on how to boost the number of students in English universities from under-represented groups. However, you are doing nothing about social mobility at the front of the lecture theatre.
I am one of too few working-class academics in UK universities. Our scarcity means that poorer students lack role models and mentors with similar life experiences to theirs. As universities focus more on giving students a better experience, this ignored issue must be addressed.
Traditionally, the route into academia is via postgraduate education. Although the government has recently announced more support for postgraduate study, via income-contingent loans, their concurrent repayment with undergraduate loans could put off students from poorer backgrounds. UUK needs to consider how to expand financial support for would-be academics in postgraduate education, perhaps by paying off their postgraduate loans when they take up academic posts.
Obviously all forms of discrimination overlap, so that social class may be tangentially considered in the context of addressing other modes of inequality. But working-class students, regardless of any other facet of their identity, have distinctive concerns at university, which need to be acknowledged and acted upon.
Social class discrimination is not limited to those of us from poorer backgrounds. Describing people as “toffs” is as derogatory as calling them “plebs”, and undermines their personal achievement.
Admittedly, part of the problem is that the Equality Act 2010 focuses on prohibiting discrimination against what are known as the nine “protected characteristics”: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation. The Human Rights Act – echoing the European Convention on Human Rights, on which it is based – does include social origin and other status in its list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. But since neither document is primarily concerned with class discrimination in employment, they have little effect.
Similarly, although the Equality Challenge Unit has established the Athena SWAN and Race Equality Charter Mark to promote gender and racial equality in universities, there is no equivalent for social class equality. This also acts as an unintended obstacle as the perceived kudos from such awards means that other equally valid equality claims become either invisible or deprioritised.
Yet there is nothing stopping universities from strategically tackling class discrimination, particularly given their ambitions to be at the forefront of contributing to the creation of a more enlightened, better-educated society. UUK is the voice and, in some ways, the leader of this drive.
Universities also – and with justification – regard themselves increasingly as global players. But global players have global responsibilities, which include heeding the recommendations of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, of which the UK is a founder member. Last year, Unesco adopted the Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action, which calls for university education to be promoted for young people of all sociocultural backgrounds.
One effective way of doing that would be to increase the diversity of professors’ class backgrounds. There is actually very little hard data on the current situation. So, as a beginning, it would be helpful if UUK published the percentage of UK university leaders from working-class backgrounds.
One reason universities shy away from tackling social class equality is the problem of definition. When arguing for a United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, some states sought to block progress on the grounds that it is impossible to define who is a child. However, the convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989 and has become the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty.
History consistently demonstrates that when traditionalists seek to block change, it is often by arguing that defining those who need protection is too complex. Yet an essential function of universities is to unravel complexity. One possible solution regarding who should be included in social class data would be to pilot a study linking a person’s date of birth to their postcode at birth. This would overcome the problem that using contemporary postcodes would be misleading as inner city codes, once less prized, have now become highly desirable. Other more effective solutions may also be found: it is not an insoluble problem.
Recent Sutton Trust research demonstrated that a private school education can have an immediate beneficial effect on graduates’ pay progression. This ought to prompt UUK to examine university remuneration, and to consider the possibility that unconscious bias against working-class academics is operating.
I have the privilege of chairing Queen Mary law school’s Equality and Diversity Committee. We are seeking to go beyond the protected characteristics to achieve a supportive, equal and diverse department. It is a complex problem, requiring a step-by-step approach. But a UUK conference on advancing social class equality would both allow such complexities to be explored and symbolise universities’ determination to shatter the class ceiling.
Geraldine Van Bueren QC is professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary University of London and is a former commissioner on the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.