You can never go home again

August 11, 2016

Ryan Coogan’s eloquent description of the alienating experiences of returning to his home working-class community in Salford after progressing from undergraduate to PhD study made long-healed scars of my own start to throb again (“Not for you: what ‘experts’ debate tells the working class”, Opinion, 4 August). And that, for me, points to the serious issues raised by this highly pertinent piece.

My experiences took place during the 1970s. The roots of the alienation of many working-class people from the idea of going to university rather than getting a “proper job” – let alone staying at university for several years after graduating with your BA/BSc – lie in structural inequalities that remain generation after generation. This is the simple answer as to why Coogan’s description of his experiences almost exactly matches my own roughly 40 years earlier.

If this is true, is it the case that “the label ‘working-class academic’ will become a contradiction in terms”, as Coogan fears? As he hopes, there are likely to always be individuals prepared to go against this grain (and they should be supported in this hard endeavour) but however much we are successful in increasing the number of these “mavericks”, we will never produce the seismic shift needed so that this is not how they are seen. It’s time we stopped individualising this essentially structural feature of our society and got down to some radical rethinking of educational and related social policies.

Stuart Billingham
Professor emeritus of lifelong learning


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