How to navigate choppy, elitist waters as a working-class academic

It will do no harm to find colleagues who understand the role of social, economic and cultural backgrounds in academia, says Carole Binns

February 5, 2021
Hallowed halls of Stanford
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Securing an academic appointment at a university or higher education institution is an aspiration for many postdoctorates and expert practitioners. And it is an achievement for those of us who do just that.

This could be post-qualification, gaining research experience and navigating the interview. Many of us are appointed by another route – after some hourly paid teaching or numerous short-term tutoring contracts being renewed over several years and totting up many hours burning the midnight oil preparing lectures, workbooks, assessments and writing journal papers. If we’re lucky, we’re offered a permanent position, and for some applicants, this will be at a highly regarded Russell Group institution.

These universities exude research excellence and share a culture of high academic achievement. Newly appointed lecturers come face to face with renowned and respected world-class academics. Furthermore, these learning cathedrals house some of the best teaching and learning facilities in the sector. But are these features sufficient to maintain those initial feelings of achievement post-appointment?

In 2018, I interviewed 14 tenured academics about their experiences of working in higher education. They all self-identified as being from a working-class heritage and spanned four academic roles: professor, reader, senior lecturer and lecturer. They ranged from early career researchers to experienced academics chalking up nearly four decades of practice. All were employed in one UK university, but several had previously worked in a Russell Group university and had left that institution disillusioned and disappointed. 

During the interviews, they revealed an almost universal reluctance to move away from their current institution and secure employment at an elitist university. This was despite being very well qualified and sufficiently research-active. Some interviewees had long publication lists and significant research grants. Career progression was important to them, but not at the expense of their personal well-being. As such, 80 per cent of them felt that they would never apply to work at a Russell Group institution as a career move.

One interviewee mentioned that their CV says they could do this, but they would not feel comfortable with it, and so they did not want to “rock the boat”. For these academics, the workplace atmosphere, positive recognition of their work, ability to continue their research interests with the facilities that they currently had, and their colleague network far outweighed the advantages of moving to an elitist university.

However, other scholars do take the plunge and go on to pursue a career at a Russell Group institution. Some slip into the working environment well, but like some of my interviewees, others may not, and they can find themselves struggling. For those in the latter camp, what advice and guidance can be offered?

As a postgraduate student, I felt lucky to be offered several part-time roles at an elitist institution. I loved my work, and by seeking out communities of like-minded individuals with common interests, I nurtured my working relationships with them. Not all my colleagues came from a working-class background, but they were lovely people, and many of them gave me a sense of belonging. Some offered further opportunities for work and study and I made the most of those avenues.

At that point I did not really understand myself, but those I sought out understood the role of social, economic and cultural backgrounds in academia. If you are an early career researcher, it will do no harm to try to find colleagues or a mentor who understand that phenomenon too.

Spend some time investing in yourself and read the now growing mass of books, journal and media articles and blogs that focus on social class. Accept yourself and what makes you who you are. Embark on a journey of self-awareness and growth if you think that would help you.

Look for connections outside your home institution for support and reassurance that your observations, views and experiences are valid. There are several national associations and groups for academics from a working-class heritage. Reach out through social media (Twitter is very good for this sort of thing) and ask for help and advice if you need it.

Very likely you will soon discover that you are not the only academic in such a situation, and maybe you will soon find yourself mentoring and supporting others too.

Carole Binns is a lecturer in criminal justice studies at the University of Bradford and a founder member of the Association of Working-Class Academics. She is the author of Experiences of Academics from a Working-Class Heritage: Ghosts of Childhood Habitus (2019, 2020).

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Reader's comments (5)

Not all Russell Group universities are the same and they are "elite" rather than "elitist". I have heard this stuck record since I was a student in the 1980s. Most people of my age are only one step away from "working class", whatever that means and were usually the first in their family to attend university. It may be the different subject backgrounds (me: Engineering and the writer: Law) but I do not recognise the picture painted. I work in a department that is very diverse in many ways. However, in academic life, one has to enter the country of the educated that has no borders and also transcend so-called "cultural" identities (including class) to belong to a modern and vibrant community.
Is there actually such a thing as 'social class' or is it a myth perpetuated by some who use it as an excuse or even as a badge of pride? "Look at me, I'm working class and I've achieved x. y. z."... when for most people, achieving x, y, z, is an accomplishment of itself without adding any further gloss. If you want to live the life of the mind, it is the mind that matters, not the extraneous baggage/labels you fancy hanging on the body in which it is contained. I still remember a conversation when, younger and fitter, I ran the local Army Cadet Force unit. Chatting with a group of cadets, they brought up one of their schoolfriends, whom they described as 'posh'. Their reasoning: she went to a private school and her parents had been to university. I grinned at them. "I went to a private school and both my parents went to university, in fact, so did I. Do you think I'm posh?" "Oh no, Sergeant," they replied. "You go to Cadets!"
Paragraphs of navel-gazing 'throat clearing' and then we find the research results: Very likely you will soon discover that you are not the only academic in such a situation, and maybe you will soon find yourself mentoring and supporting others too.
An appointment to a university post surely means that a 'working class' person has entered the middle class?
Sometimes I think that anyone who *needs* to work (whatever the work) is effectively 'working class'. Some even argue that the middle class has become a working class that is a bit better off, so-to-say, but very much working class still.


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