It's right posh in t'common room, innit?

Academia's worst snobberies may be dying out, but an accent on class still lingers, finds Matthew Reisz

November 27, 2008

When vacant places came up on editorial boards, Lorraine Gamman used to notice, she and a black colleague often seemed to be in demand. It was nice to be wanted, but she couldn't help noting: "You were only asked because you're black - and I was only asked because I'm common."

Gamman, professor in design studies at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London, suspects that such experiences are not unusual for working-class academics like herself.

"You get sent to things in order to widen participation - being the token can be a bit annoying." She has been asked whether she is putting on her accent and whether, as an East End girl, she used to go hop-picking on her holidays (something that died out in the 1950s).

None of this was particularly traumatic. "I felt like (the heroine of) Educating Rita, but then I figured it out and adjusted - although some people don't go through that process so well. Stuff happens, but what matters is how much you let it bother you."

Yet the norms of academic life remain in tension with those she grew up with. "I swear less and behave very differently from how I do within my family. My way of communicating is perceived as aggressive. I don't wait to be asked, which is common where I come from. Women in academia tend to be polite. And I assume most working-class people are intelligent. Not everybody assumes that about me - sometimes to their cost."

Furthermore, as someone who grew up on council estates and has written about shoplifting and street crime, Gamman feels that there is a huge gulf between the communities she comes from and those who study them. "Reading criminology (research])didn't have much to do with what I had seen with my own eyes," she says. When a group one is part of is portrayed by academic outsiders, the description does not always ring true.

A report by the Sutton Trust, released exclusively to Times Higher Education this week (see pages 8-9), challenges the notion that academia is a particularly "posh" profession. Britain's university leaders, says Lee Elliot Major, the trust's research director, "come predominantly from grammar school backgrounds - in stark contrast to the dominance of privately educated leaders in other professions we have looked at, such as politics, law or journalism".

He also notes that "those vice-chancellors who were educated at independent schools did not attend the highly exclusive public schools that still produce so many other prominent people in public life".

Schooling does not correlate precisely with social class, although there are obviously close links. But even those vice-chancellors from working-class backgrounds, says Major, "are what might be termed quintessentially middle class - examples of the postwar upwardly mobile generation who used education to climb the social ladder and benefited from an expanding higher education system".

Academia as a whole is more varied, not least because it covers a wider age range, but does anyone doubt that it is a solidly middle-class profession? As Willy Maley, professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Glasgow (see box below right), has pointed out: "It is common at universities for the accents - and addresses - of the catering, maintenance, security and secretarial staff to differ from those of the academic staff."

So where does this leave academics who define themselves - or are defined by others - as "working class"? Are they regularly stereotyped, patronised or even discriminated against because of their social background? Does snobbery play a crucial role in the ways universities are structured, who gets promoted or where the money flows? And how do class issues affect what happens in the seminar room, what is studied and which approaches are considered valid? Class, after all, is a topic that impinges on many academic disciplines and about which no one is neutral.

Some take a fairly positive view of universities, claiming that they have experienced more class prejudice and stereotyping outside than within. John Burns, professor of management and accountancy at the University of Dundee, got a chair by the age of 37, though he comes from "a working-class background in Stockport, went to a comprehensive and managed to scrape (his) way through university".

He suspects that "there might still be a 'system' out there by which I, for example, 'just know' not to bother applying for jobs at Cambridge or Oxford ... so this sets some boundaries within which you set your stall".

But although he says he has "perhaps been fortunate in the routes I've taken and the people I've worked with", he has had no trouble within the walls of the academy. Yet even as dean, he says, he has "faced problems in linking up with people in the profession, business and industry. I often felt on a wrong footing as soon as I walked through the door. There's an immediate reaction to the accent. But it's never crossed my mind to try and work on it."

Others put far more stress on snobbery - and the way class issues get swept under the carpet. For Ian Haywood, professor of English at Roehampton University, "The academy as a whole is dominated by the middle and upper middle classes, and this is particularly the case for academic staff, where it is still unusual to hear strong working-class or regional accents.

"My course on working-class fiction used to be popular in the 1990s but now rarely recruits," says Haywood. "Perhaps new Labour has continued the Tory project of extinguishing the notion of the working class and replacing it with the Victorian idea of the deserving and undeserving poor."

Clive Bloom, emeritus professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University, believes that stereotyping on the basis of class was (and to an extent still is) common in the academy. Defining his background as "lower middle class", he recalls "the occasional snide comment - the tone of voice when people said 'Clive's our Cockney representative', or 'Oh, you watch Coronation Street, do you?'" At his inaugural lecture, the dean made a point of commenting: "I didn't realise you had so many relatives."

Outside these minor irritations, Bloom believes that class pervades the sector in a number of more significant ways. He thinks the research assessment exercise is "incredibly snobbish" since it's premised on the notion that "publishing unreadable articles is much better than books that might actually be popular". And academics from his sort of background have to be "more personally entrepreneurial and individualistic ... You have to go sideways rather than just climbing the corporate ladder in a conventional way".

Much of this accords with the views and experiences of Gary Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfont University, who spent part of his childhood on "rough estates in Yorkshire". He studied for his A levels at a technical college and got three As but failed to gain an Oxbridge interview. And when he was planning a PhD on Shakespeare, Cambridge would not give him an interview.

Class, he argues, is "the big unspoken in higher education. Most people are terrified of mentioning it. But to the impartial observer it's obvious that we have a bipartite system: the affluent middle class, by and large, go to Russell Group universities and the lower middle class and working class to the new universities." For anyone who disputes the basic picture, he issues a challenge: "Show me someone (teaching) at Oxford or Durham who got their degree at a former polytechnic."

Day also raises questions about attitudes to class within universities. "The focus on gender and ethnicity was supposed to be progressive. But defining people by race or gender hides how they are differentiated by class. This has the effect of dividing people by race and gender who may be connected by class. In trying to be fair to everyone, the rhetoric of certain parts of the Left simply succeeds in masking the exploitation and inequality on which class is based."

A specialist in drama and the history of literary criticism, Day has also written about literature and class, an issue he feels is often distorted or ignored. Robert Tressell's classic novel of political awakening, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), has been issued with introductions by the novelist Alan Sillitoe and by Day himself, but a recent edition opted for Tristram Hunt - a leading young historian but also the son of a lord. The result, Day argues, is that working-class stories get "neutralised as quaint or just a moment in history".

A final irritation, says Day, is "the very patronising attitudes among people responsible for widening participation" - who often treat those from "non-traditional" and sometimes very difficult backgrounds "as if they are on the sick list and need help".

Some of the more grotesque snobberies of the past may be disappearing, but who can doubt that class is still the elephant in university common rooms?


For Terry Eagleton, one of the most prominent working-class British academics of the past few decades, the "scholarship boy" ranks with the "mad scientist" and the "dumb blonde" as among the "most archetypal of postwar characters".

An interesting example is the career of Vic Gatrell, professor of British history at the University of Essex and a life fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Gatrell was brought up in a small South African town by working-class parents who had left school at 14. When he came to the University of Cambridge on a scholarship in 1962, it proved an immense culture shock.

"I was acutely aware of the privilege of the boys who surrounded me," he recalls. "The teachers didn't give a stuff, the book lists were disorganised, the essays were collectively marked. The public-school element was very intrusive. My early friends were all outsiders."

He was baffled by "the braying, hefty, hearty men in my hostel who got dressed up in white and went off beagling - which I'd never heard of. For three years I hated Cambridge. I would imagine lobbing a hand grenade every night before I fell asleep."

Appointed a fellow of Gonville and Caius in 1971, he slowly came to terms with the place. A turning point came with the admission of women, which "put paid to the rugger-bugger culture". Nonetheless, he always thought of himself as an outsider within both the college and the faculty.

His intellectual career followed a similar trajectory. For his research supervisor, he has written, "the very notion of 'class' was anathema, even as I wrote a PhD dissertation on the subject ... Confidence grew only with the self-radicalisation that grew out of teaching bright students the history of 'deviance, law and social order in England, 1750-1914' - 'underdog' history, as one colleague sourly termed it, hitherto unrecognised in Cambridge. All the same, for a decade it became the most popular (history) course."

His research also allowed him to fight back "against the sundry repressions I experienced". These included "the prudishness of my working-class upbringing in small-town South Africa ... the monstrosities of that apartheid nation, and of the racist bullies, disciplinarians and puritans who sustained its policeman-state". But he also mentions "the constraining gentilities of Cambridge".

All this led him to "side with the punished, the deviants, the ironists, the impolite". The result was City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London (2006), a celebration of the vicious, obscene and often lavatorial popular prints that poured from the presses in the period from 1770 to 1830 and savaged just about everybody in positions of power. This prize-winning book, a huge scholarly achievement, also reveals how class conflict within British universities can help motivate important work.


Willy Maley, professor of Renaissance studies at the University of Glasgow, has often reflected on his "experiences as the seventh of nine children from a council estate and the first in my family to go to university.

"First-generation professionals have to make it up as we go along," he has written. "Fewer people than we would like to imagine can say that they have crossed from one class to another in their lifetime. Traversing the great social divide is not as easy as it seems from the outside."

After a first degree at the University of Strathclyde, Maley went to the University of Cambridge in 1985 to do his PhD. Because postgraduates were not interviewed ("I would have needed an interpreter"), "the three As - accent, access and address - come into play only for undergraduate applicants".

He has striking stories of how those with a "Glasgow brogue" used to fare in our ancient universities.

Cutting across the forecourt on one occasion, as members of the college were entitled to do, he was accosted by a porter and escorted to the door. Only when Maley showed a matriculation card did the porter back down and apologise profusely. Maley was "uncertain as to whether I was more angry at being manhandled or at the grovelling that followed on from the revealing of my true identity as a future member of the ruling class".

Another time he tried to take some relatives to lunch at college, and the catering staff assumed that he was a con artist, "the proverbial affable Scot, down working on a construction site" and trying "to pass myself off as a student to my family".

Yet he adds that "I suffered for my accent at Cambridge, which is unsurprising; but I suffered at Strathclyde, too - and that is unforgivable."

Maley says he would not feel at home in academia if he did not believe such social snobbery was on the way out, but he sees that it lingers on. "I think things have changed since I was a student, but I still witness the most dreadful classism, usually from public-school silver-spoon exclusive Oxbridge products, but also from some more surprising quarters and, unlike other issues of equality and diversity, it's a form of invisible discrimination that is very pervasive. I wouldn't want to exaggerate it, but anyone who says class isn't a major issue, linked to access and community and diversity and equality and inclusion, really isn't paying attention."

And what of how the humanities are taught? Are there still writers who are largely studied by self-selecting cliques who try to stop outsiders joining their club?

"There is no reason why Jane Austen should not be read alongside Irvine Welsh," says Maley, "which is where I would place her. Breaking down barriers, including those arbitrary ones between literary periods, is key to opening up access to those excluded by badges and school ties and accents."

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