The professoriate has become closed off to people from lower social backgrounds as increased competition for academic jobs favours the middle classes, according to a study from Germany.
The German professoriate of the 1970s was disproportionately made up of graduates from humble backgrounds as their more privileged peers chose other career paths.
Yet by the 2000s, this had reversed. Professors with relatively advantaged parents, like managers or top civil servants, outnumbered by almost four to one those from low-skilled or non-graduate backgrounds. They came from a cohort where there were only 40 per cent more students with a high social status than a low one.
Frerk Blome, a researcher at Leibniz University of Hanover and one of the report’s authors, said that German academia had opened up socially in the 1980s and 1990s, but had “closed again” by the 2000s.
Increasingly cut-throat competition for academic jobs advantaged individuals who had known from an early age that they wanted to become a professor, argued Mr Blome, who has interviewed a range of academics about how their class has affected their careers.
For those from poorer backgrounds, “career steps often aren’t that straight”, he said.
In contrast, “when you grow up with professors [as a parent or family friend]…you know they are only human beings”, and that insight could allow a person to strive towards academia from a young age, Mr Blome added. One interviewee from a poorer background had not thought he was clever enough to pursue an academic career until his mid-thirties, he recounted.
Germany has also rolled out “junior professorships” to replace its traditional “habilitation” – a second doctorate, in effect – and speed the academic career process, but these positions had tended to go to the more privileged, Mr Blome noted.
The “closure” of the German professoriate has coincided with the profession becoming more precarious, the research paper, “Open House? Class-Specific Career Opportunities within German Universities”, published in Social Inclusion, points out. Increasingly, it may be open only to those with enough financial and cultural capital to take a risk, it suggests.
This “closure” process was only very rarely about conscious discrimination against working-class academics, Mr Blome said. Instead, as jobs had become scarcer, “people from higher classes are far better prepared in that competition”, he explained, a phenomenon also seen in German journalism, politics and in the upper echelons of business.
For example, academics from wealthy backgrounds could afford to study in “prestigious” high-fee countries such as the US or the UK, racking up valuable English-language publications early in their careers.
Because of these pressures, Mr Blome said that he “would expect professors to become more exclusive” in terms of social class in the future.
A lack of social diversity could result in a narrower range of research topics, at least in the humanities and social sciences, he warned; historians from a poorer background were, for example, more likely to study the working class.
But what universities could do about dwindling numbers of working-class academics was not clear-cut, he said, because social background was so much harder to define – and create quotas for – than gender or ethnicity.