Being working class in the academy

While widening access is high on universities’ agendas at undergraduate level, class barriers still prevail in the academy. Here, five working-class scholars describe their experiences of ‘otherness’

October 25, 2018
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Source: Getty

Socio-economic groups are rarely high among the self-definitions to which people cling in the 21st-century era of identity politics. Consequently, while universities are often prodded to widen participation at undergraduate levels, the proportion of people from poor backgrounds at postgraduate and faculty levels typically receives much less attention than the representation, say, of women or people from ethnic minorities.

Nevertheless, an academic career arguably remains as remote an aspiration as it has ever been for working-class academics. That is because even if, against all the odds, they excel at school and – perhaps via a widening participation initiative – find their way to a top university, they must still negotiate an alien, emphatically middle-class cultural setting, not to mention sustain themselves during the various periods of low or no income that early career academics typically have to endure.

Here, five academics from poor backgrounds describe the barriers – often invisible to their more affluent peers – that they have had to negotiate. Institutions that pride themselves on their supposed inclusivity and that aim to maximise their academic performance would perhaps do well to take such tales to heart. Greater efforts to access the large, under-fished talent pools hidden away in less fashionable postcodes might just land them a richer catch.


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‘I want to challenge the notion that academia is not for people like me and I want to be part of an effort to make the profession fairer’

There is nothing unusual about my upbringing. I was raised on a rough council estate by my unemployed, disabled single mother, helped by my heroic grandparents. So were countless others. Yet vanishingly few of us end up becoming academics – and precious few members of the sector hierarchy seem to care.

I’ve never been comfortable talking about my past, even when I was on the verge of giving up. Better, I thought, to keep to myself the cultural isolation and bleak nights spent worrying about slipping back into destitution. That reticence has partly been the result of a feeling that I’m not eminent enough; I don’t have a permanent position yet so I don’t want to risk colleagues’ thinking I was pleading a special case. My class origins have shaped me, however, and are influencing the kind of academic career I’m forging. I want to challenge the notion that academia is not for people like me and I want to be part of what has to be a comprehensive effort to make the profession fairer.

Throughout childhood, attention was necessarily, exclusively, on life’s basics: food, water, shelter and keeping out of trouble. There was no room for aspiration or self-worth. People like me sat down to our free school meals as our wealthier peers were leaving the canteen. We wore highly recognisable, state-supplied shoes and coats. And the careers advice we received encouraged us to aspire to “appropriate” professions: hair and beauty for girls, the army for boys. An academic career was never even entertained as a possibility.

These well-meaning mechanisms were compounded by the anti-intellectualism, even anti-work sentiment, of our council estate. Valuing education implied that you thought you were better than everyone else, and although news of any future plans that didn’t involve staying put could be greeted with a “good on you”, it could also provoke a punch in the face. I didn’t dare read a book outside school until I was 15 and, to this day, the sound of my own name brings more readily to mind the boy collecting free school meals than the grown-up who collected a PhD certificate.

Given the circumstances, a career in the humanities was perhaps a reckless decision. The precariousness of early academic life and my lack of a financial safety net means I’m always just one mistake away from losing everything.

About six months ago, I met up with a group of my PhD friends. The sun shone as we rejoiced by the Thames, sharing mostly good news: I helped them celebrate their holidays in Switzerland, new houses, books with university presses, even children. A few had academic jobs already. I was (and am) proud of them, and, for my part, I was able to share the success of my company, news of married life and my new associations with UCL. But as I rode the Tube back to Ealing, I reflected that behind my friends’ stories was a certain comfortable sense of inevitability, even entitlement. This was their due. They were too aware to be smug about it: they’d worked hard for their successes. But family and affluence had sheltered them from the world as they did so. As an outsider, I’d had to take a more cunning path.

My participation in the academic world had begun with the films I made with research teams, for purposes of both documentation and engagement. This allowed me to command a fee, which kept me afloat while I developed other skills. Had I enjoyed the financial support and cultural security of coming from a middle-class background, I would have been spending my time writing articles instead. My contribution to academia would have been markedly different.

I am unbelievably fortunate to have got this far and to have found such a business niche, enabling me to compete without trust funds, parental support or savings. But how many others from my background can afford to take on the risk of preparing for an academic career unsupported? How many others could write the unpaid articles necessary to secure a permanent position in the face of astronomical living costs?

We desperately need to make things fairer because people from my background do belong in higher education, just as much as women, disabled people or those from ethnic minorities do. Social class isn’t a protected characteristic under the UK’s Human Rights Act, so discrimination on its basis is not unlawful. But what would change about the entry requirements to our profession even if it was?

If we are serious about education and social representation, we must devise new entry requirements to the profession that don’t necessitate months of free work after a PhD. Otherwise the expertise and experiences of working-class people will continue to be carelessly lost to an academy that is supposed to cherish diverse perspectives.

Paul W. Craddock is an honorary senior research associate in the department of surgery, UCL, and the director of Smart Docs.


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‘In the same way that whiteness allows someone to rarely think of race, economic privilege gives a person the freedom to erase class’

During my PhD at the Australian National University, my scholarship colleagues and I would converse as the tea ladies served us our morning drinks on our balcony, where we mingled with the political scientists, philosophers and visiting fellows from other elite universities. A working-class girl from an industrial town in the north of Tasmania, I had decided to write my thesis on class and unemployment. But my peers assured me that class does not exist. To speak of it, they said, was to use outdated terminology, deriving from defunct social theories.

In post-war Australia, class had been a battlefield. Academics had toiled in sandstone buildings, writing long tracts about exploitation and capitalism before heading to the professors’ lounge for a sherry by the fire. But by the 1980s, the recession and its neoliberal solutions had transformed the Labor Party and punched a hole through the unions. People began to see themselves as individuals, not collectives, and academia had taken a postmodern turn, opening the way for a new identity politics.

So class was out of fashion. Indeed, talk of class had come to be seen as positively unAustralian, since the concept was now believed to be an exclusive feature of the Motherland, left behind with the creation of the new egalitarian nation. But while, for my colleagues, the concept of class was like a commodity that could be picked up, looked over and put back on the shelf, I was beginning to see class in everything around me – not least in my relationship with them.

It was 2001 and the ANU was seen as the pinnacle of Australia’s university sector. Its academics were famous. Some of its doctoral students were famous too – mostly sons or daughters of important academics or writers. “Who are your parents? I mean, what do they do?” an older student asked me on my first day.

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My mother worked at a department store and my father was a salesman. Before I started my bachelor of arts at the University of Tasmania, we hadn’t known anyone who’d been to university. When my year 12 social studies teacher had asked us to name our class position, most of my peers told her they were middle class, but I said I was upper class – because “both my parents have jobs”.

So to say that the ANU was a culture shock is quite an understatement. It was like a foreign country. The staff and students conversed in a language I didn’t understand, referencing cultural pursuits and experiences I’d only ever imagined. I tried in vain to read middle-class social contexts, pre-edit my language and avoid talking about my research.

I tried to explain how our community had been exploited and then abandoned by business. I talked about the frustrated and depressed teachers and students with no reason to engage. I told the story of my mum’s friend, a single mother, who spent nights cleaning offices only to become crippled by the work at 45. But even that didn’t penetrate.

“It doesn’t prove anything,” one student said: “only that some people make bad choices.”

“Maybe she liked cleaning,” another added.

In the same way that whiteness allows someone to rarely think of race, economic privilege gives a person the freedom to erase class – or to reduce it to value judgements about people’s taste – as if “good” and “bad” taste are objective realities devoid of social context. The name given to people with “low tastes” in Australia is “bogan”. Unlike “working class”, this is a term most Australians feel comfortable using.

The elite Group of Eight universities remain the bastions of intergenerational wealth, predominantly recruiting students from top private schools and always failing to reach targets for those from low socio-economic backgrounds. After taking a job at another Go8 institution, I now work at one of the “lower-tier” universities, in a regional area outside Melbourne. We have a high proportion of students from poor backgrounds, and when I mention class they rarely raise an eyebrow.

With the escalation of house prices in Australian cities, home ownership is out of reach for most middle-class young people, and they’re looking for answers. Many have settled on generational warfare, but some have found the language of class.

Casual employment is becoming the norm at the early career stage in Australian universities, making an academic career ever more difficult to pursue for those without the financial safety net to sustain such an insecure lifestyle. Whether the victims of this system identify as working class or not, their exclusion is undeniable.

Verity Archer is a lecturer in sociology at Federation University, Australia.


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‘Cultural capital bestows on the middle class an iron-clad certainty that they can thrive in any social milieu’

I love my job as a university lecturer. I gain satisfaction from teaching, research and even departmental paperwork.

But I don’t enjoy networking events. In fact, I dread what I perceive to be contrived social situations.

It might be a bit reductive to attribute all of this to my working-class background in the East End of London in the early 1960s, but I am currently leading a qualitative UK study of academics from similar backgrounds and I have noticed that nearly all of the participants, despite being experienced researchers and scholars, feel the same. During my interviews with them, many spoke at length of their unease and lack of enthusiasm around “forcing” new networks. Many said that they preferred to develop working associations more organically, at their own pace – or with people they already know.

It’s not that I don’t apply to present at conferences and seminars, or aspire to meet people who are engaged in projects similar to mine. I see doing so as part of my contracted role and I go along with it. And I’m fine being asked questions about my presentation. I’m fine in the lunch queue, chattering to the person next to me about the dining options. But I am like a fish out of water when it comes to the networking.

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One of my participants said they “couldn’t think of anything worse” than approaching fellow scholars at a conference to – as another interviewee put it – “talk about research and bids and tout for business”. Another said that “engineered networking” left them “worn out”. These are, on the whole, far more experienced academics, researchers and publishers than myself, some of them at professorial level, with substantial lists of publications and major research grants.

Of course, people can struggle to schmooze for all kinds of reasons aside from their class background. But Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron’s concept of cultural capital is surely relevant: the unseen and unofficial education that bestows on the middle class an iron-clad certainty that they can thrive in any social milieu.

Perhaps universities could attempt to compensate for their working-class students’ deficit in this area, but I suspect they will be fighting a losing battle. Over the years I’ve become a little better at it, but I don’t think that networking will ever be my thing.

Carole Binns is a lecturer in criminal justice studies at the University of Bradford.


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‘As I approach the end of my PhD, it has never been more clear that academia is not built with me in mind’

There have been a number of times in my life when I have known, unequivocally, that I do not belong in academia.

It hits me like a wave that this is a system that will never accept me: an unwilling host trying desperately to reject a foreign body. I do not belong because I am poor, because my family is poor, and because poor people do not get to be academics.

When I say “I have known” this, I mean that I have known it in the way that an anxious person knows that everybody in the room hates them, or the way the recently heartbroken know that they are going to die alone. On the one hand, the vast majority of academics that I meet are, unsurprisingly, very liberal and supportive. They might not share my experiences, but they at least make an attempt at understanding them. Likewise, there are financial crutches that provide a much-needed point of entry for aspiring working-class academics. There are hardship funds, there are scholarships, there is career support, all of which I have taken full advantage of over the past four years. However, as I approach the end of my PhD, it has never been more clear that academia is not built with me in mind. However open-minded and supportive its inhabitants, the fact is that the entire institution is built around the assumption that you will have access to money.

Do you have a conference to go to on the other side of the country, or somewhere abroad? If you’re extremely lucky, your university will cover the costs in full, including travel and sustenance (my university has done so on several occasions). However, you may be expected to pay these expenses out of pocket, only to be reimbursed at a later (sometimes much later) date. In the world that I inhabit, the phrase “I’m skint” means: “I literally have no money in my bank account.” In academia, though, it means: “I only have some money.”

Oh, wow! You’ve been asked to contribute to a post-conference volume, and there are rumours swirling about that a top name publisher is interested. Even better, the journal that prints all the most cutting-edge articles in your field wants to publish some of your work. These are opportunities that you must take up in order to have a viable chance at a postdoctoral career. But in both cases, doing so is going to account for about 100 hours of your time if you want to produce some quality work. I just hope you don’t feel like being paid for your labour since that really isn’t what we do here. The minimum expectation is that you will spend, and that you shouldn’t expect to receive.

The scholarship that I relied on has recently run out, so I have begun supplementing my income with a part-time job, in the hope of eventually transitioning to full-time postdoctoral work when I have edited my final thesis pages. But what you are not told when you begin your course is that almost having a PhD is employment kryptonite. You have just enough of a qualification to make vocational employers afraid to hire you in the (justified) fear that you’ll run away as soon as you’ve completed your research, but not enough of one to open the doors to those coveted academic jobs. You are unemployed, borderline unemployable, and here’s the punchline: you can’t sign up for Jobseeker’s Allowance because you’re still technically a student.

It is not that academia deliberately puts up barriers to keep working-class people out of the senior common room. The problem is the absence of the bridges that its leaders never even considered they would have to make for us, because it did not occur to them that people like us exist.

Ryan Coogan is in the final stages of his PhD in English literature at Liverpool John Moores University.


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‘A working-class persona can actually be a considerable asset when it comes to teaching and learning’ 

The fact that I am an academic at all is thanks in no small part to the expansion of higher education during the late 1990s. But even though I defied advice from my schoolteachers to leave at 15 “because you are not going to pass anything” and proved them emphatically wrong, my path to senior lecturer status was fraught, requiring me to do my PhD part-time, during hours begged, borrowed or stolen from non-academic full-time jobs, mostly in coffee shops.

And although I have broken through the class ceiling that keeps out so many others with council-estate upbringings, my regional accent, style of clothes and general demeanour are still so unusual on academia’s social terrain that they invite judgement and reinforce a sense that I am a very atypical academic.

I am not unique, of course. But I observe working-class colleagues who are as proud of their backgrounds as I am yet who nevertheless respond to that negativity by neglecting that identity when it comes to constructing their personas as lecturers and researchers.

My resistance of that urge, however, has taught me that a working-class persona can actually be a considerable asset when it comes to teaching and learning. Students habitually feed back that the same out-of-the-ordinary traits that oblige me to work harder than some of my middle-class colleagues to attain a privileged position and that feed my remaining doubts about fitting in, make them feel that I am more attuned to their individual existences.

One example of a useful working-class trait is “banter”. This is almost always portrayed in a poor light in academic literature, mainly in relation to bullying and suicide. But its perceived authenticity and antipathy to pretentiousness and hierarchy is conducive to forming a more grounded and helpful connection with students.

This is especially true for the growing number of working-class students that institutions like mine are recruiting, who grapple with their class identity and feelings of lacking entitlement to academic knowledge. My approach helps them to realise that the issues of transitioning into a new class culture are not a reflection on their individual capacity to achieve through higher education. This, in turn, facilitates their academic adjustment.

But appreciation of my approach is not confined to working-class students. Retaining a regional accent, which many students from wealthier backgrounds assume to be from a disadvantaged area, confronts them with the reality of alternative educational journeys to their own, and feeds into a classroom management based on humanistic practices and values, rather than traditional disciplinary techniques. Students report that this different dynamic is both engaging and enjoyable, encouraging them to participate and helping them to retain information and develop a spirit of openness to new voices and forms and sources of knowledge.

I do not wish to perpetuate stereotypes of the working class. Nor do I want to dismiss the notion that class is a factor in career mobility, or to overlook the need for every lecturer to critically evaluate how to approach their own particular subject. But my interest is in challenging assumptions about what knowledge is, who can teach it, and who can learn from it. I do this through finding commonality and connections with students as people and as future professionals. And, in that, embracing my working-class background has proved to be a considerable asset.

Craig Johnston is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Health and Social Care at the University of Winchester.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: The class ceiling

Reader's comments (7)

Maybe stopping using pretentious phrases like 'the academy' would be a start too!
1. According to these pictures there are no brown skinned people who are working class. That's a relief, they have enough to deal with with racism in the academy never mind class prejudice. 2. Working class member of my family. First, MA with distinction. Offered PhD Scholarship. Chose a University Professional Support Staff Career instead. Under 30, she has a good salary, a permanent post, and is pensioned - she could have joined USS, but chose the better local government LPFA scheme instead. To quote here: 'you'd have to be stupid to do a PhD'. Which given that you have to be clever to do a PhD, is a bit of a problem. For the academy.
"My approach helps them to realise that the issues of transitioning into a new class culture are not a reflection on their individual capacity to achieve through higher education. This, in turn, facilitates their academic adjustment." I have 2 questions about "academic adjustment" - for whose benefit? and at whose expense?
'Class', just like 'ethnicity' and 'gender', are divisive constructs often used as a crutch where none is needed. If you are good - and academia needs the brilliant minds - you will thrive... unless you hold yourself back by obsessing on artificial classifications that can mask the fact that you are a bright person, or claiming some kind of entitlement because you see yourself as disadvantaged.
Interesting in the intro that you conflate 'working-class' and 'poor'; maybe truer now than when this WC academic was young, but working class men at any rate could be then, and some still are now, better paid than many academics.
You are right. Class seems to have become forgotten in the identity politics as you mentioned. What would Karl say? :) Academia is elitist and classist the higher you go up in the career ladder, no matter which country, so is Politics, etc. It pervades society. It never went anywhere.
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