Survival of the fitter

January 1, 1999

At a time when Labour is desperate to break the middle-class stranglehold on universities, Alan Thomson asks two working-class lecturers how they coped at college

Roger Undy is a rarity among Oxford academics in that he knows what it is like to get his hands dirty working in a factory. He left secondary modern at 15 in the mid-1950s. His brother went to grammar school and then to university, but Roger failed his 11 plus. For him the obvious path was to follow his father and grandfather into engineering. An apprenticeship as a fitter beckoned.

Undy, now a fellow of Templeton College, Oxford, and a reader in management studies at the university's business school, says: "My family was steeped in the Labour Party, trade unions and the non-conformist church. My parents held dearly the view that education was the way to improve their children's lot in life, so I felt I was a bit of a disaster."

His twenties were spent fixing the plant at a Boots factory in Nottingham, trying to work his way up the company ladder and being active in the trade union. He might have stayed in Nottingham had it not been for a twist of fate. "Boots was a very paternalistic company in those days," says Undy, in a broad Nottinghamshire accent. "It gave people the opportunity for day release. I took my City and Guilds and then a production engineering qualification. But then I was off sick for a while, and they refused any more day release. So I applied for a Trades Union Congress scholarship to Ruskin College and got it. It was the late 1960s and I was nearly 30."

Ruskin College, in Oxford, has provided a second chance for working-class people for the past century. More than a hundred former Ruskin students have gone on to become university lecturers, and 15 are now professors. Most students enter the college with few or no qualifications.

Undy completed a two-year diploma programme in social studies at Ruskin. Then, he moved on to Wadham College in Oxford to read history and economics.

Oxford University is still trying to increase the proportion of state to public school pupils in its colleges; the present mix is about 50-50. In the 1960s and early 1970s, mature working-class students, particularly ones from secondary moderns, were relatively rare.

Yet Undy was never overawed by his surroundings, the people, the buildings or the arcane college rituals. His passion for cricket and football helped to build bridges with his "posh" contemporaries. "Sometimes I felt a little shut out, but I think this may have had to do with the fact that I was older than the other undergraduates and had a wife and kids. They used to call me the septuagenarian."

At this stage, Undy's sights were set on becoming an MP. He first stood, unsuccessfully, as a Labour candidate in Bridgwater against the Conservatives' Tom King. He stood for election in other constituencies until the early 1980s when, fighting a Leeds seat, the party asked him to come and live in the constituency. He refused and his potential parliamentary career was over.

Throughout the 1970s Undy worked as a researcher under Bill (now Lord) McCarthy, who was a fellow at Nuffield and chairman of the Railway Staff National Tribunal. In 1978, Undy himself was elected a fellow of Templeton. The former fitter had been welcomed into the ivory tower.

Again, Undy was unperturbed by the social divide between himself and most of his fellow academics - although he was once accused by a don of using "shop-steward tactics" in an internal college negotiation process.

In fact, he found the university fairly democratic compared with Boots's enlightened paternalism. "You become very organised and committed coming from this sort of background, and my academic peer group was more willing to recognise that than (were my former colleagues in) industry, where the hierarchy was different," he says.

Undy's experiences have left him with a strong commitment to widening access to higher education for people from working-class backgrounds. He was an external examiner at Oxford Brookes University and is a member of the Unions 21, a TUC initiative encouraging debate about the future for trade unions. He is also bidding, with academics from Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, for a Pounds 1 million grant from the Leverhulme Trust to research trade unions.

As the beneficiary of scholarships and bursaries, he is sceptical of Labour's decision to introduce tuition fees and abolish maintenance grants for students. "There was no chance that I would have gone into higher education without the financial support I had. I would hope that, in the longer term, if they (fees) are found to be a deterrent, the government will do something about it."

As the son of an immigrant Irish labourer, Tom Sherry's career path might not have pointed immediately in the direction of academe. The Ruskin College lecturer was a bright child who passed the 11 plus but, perhaps because of his family background, he went to a technical rather than a grammar school. Going to a grammar school would have significantly increased his chances of a university place.

Lordswood Boys School, in Birmingham, aimed to produce skilled workers and technicians for the great Midlands industrial belt. Sherry left, aged 16, in 1969 and started a commercial apprenticeship at GKN Forging and Press Works. His early working life saw him make the most of the pubs and clubs in Birmingham.

But within four years he had decided he had to get out of the forge. I ask why and he says simply: "Have you ever worked in a forge? Do you know about filth, smoke, noise, split shifts?" After travelling through Europe and to Israel, he returned to Birmingham to take a clerical job with the city council in the city engineer's department, where he became involved in trade unionism. This was, although he did not know it at the time, a crucial decision. He became a shop steward and health and safety secretary for Birmingham City Council's branch of the public sector union Nalgo, now part of Unison. Part of his duties were to organise health and safety training sessions for officers at a local college.

It was there that a lecturer told him about Ruskin College. "I had heard of it, but that was about it," he says. "The lecturer persuaded me to write off for a prospectus, which I did. I spent the next 12 months deliberating about whether to apply."

He originally thought about furthering his trade union career through Ruskin by doing labour studies. But he noticed that the college offered an English literature programme. "I had been an avid reader all my life, but I realised at school that I would not be able to compete for a university place."

Sherry, who was married by now, was accepted to Ruskin aged 29. He remembers sacrificing his steady wage for a grant and the dislocating switch to academic culture. "It was completely unfamiliar stuff. Weekly tutorials, hour-long interrogations of my essays, working on my own. It was the sort of thing I had no experience of. It was both alarming and exhilarating. I gritted my teeth and decided I was going to see it through."

Despite finding himself in dire financial straits by the end of his course, Sherry gained his diploma in literature and started at Wadham College, Oxford, as an English literature degree student. Here, among the many middle-class school-leavers, Sherry's sense of being an outsider intensified.

"Many of the students had a very different class background. Margaret Thatcher was on the ascendancy and the undergraduates were trimming their politics to suit the dominant mood of the day. In some ways, it was a hostile environment. Many had very little sympathy with working-class Labour politics. I had a sense of being a fish out of water.

"I found it very difficult to use the junior common room. People were behaving in ways that I had stopped years earlier."

His subsequent lecturing career has been spent at Ruskin, where he now provides written English support for students. He finds that his own experience helps enormously in providing pastoral care and advice to students, many of whom share similar backgrounds.

He feels strongly about the financial plight of students today. "I think the abolition of the maintenance grant is disastrous for working-class candidates such as myself. It is making people very worried indeed about how they can afford higher education. Time will tell if it has any longer-lasting impact on working-class participation in higher education."

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