Being working class is still a major barrier to getting ahead in the academy.
That, at least, is the view of the Association of Working Class Academics, recently established to help blue-collar scholars succeed in the supposedly class-ridden world of UK higher education. And it is a view echoed by the anonymous researcher who wrote movingly in Times Higher Education recently about how she has been consistently held back by her Romany Gypsy background (“The end of my tether”, Features, 7 March).
My experience could not be more different, however. I was the first in my family even to go to university, let alone to embark on an academic career. My dad’s post-school education consisted of an apprenticeship as a machine technician, while my mother went straight into a job as an office girl. The word “academic” was sometimes used in our home, but always pejoratively – such as when a conservative politician on the television news got lost in abstractions. My dad’s frequent references to “engineers” were also made through gritted teeth because, according to him, university-educated mechanical engineers had only a remote, academic understanding of what machines were really like.
Of course, class matters enormously when it comes to considering career options. It is only natural for young people to consider pathways that they are familiar with. Work and social identity are closely connected, and that means that their role models usually come from the same type of background as they do. So universities must undoubtedly do much more to widen access to ensure that they attract the best talent from all walks of life.
Despite everything, however, universities became my professional playground. And once you become a member of the higher education world – either as a student or researcher – my experience is that social class no longer matters. I have never thought of myself as being disadvantaged in any way by not coming from an academic family.
After all, despite their often overly bureaucratic nature, universities are very transparent when it comes to recruitment and career progression. Academic success is determined by merit, and performance criteria are structurally identical across all disciplines. Publications in prestigious journals, grants won and successful supervision of PhD students all matter greatly, and everybody knows that. Moreover, promotion criteria are often very clearly articulated, with consideration of applications typically carried out by committees on which the applicant’s line manager does not sit.
All of this codification minimises the importance of any insider knowledge that academics from non-traditional backgrounds would lack. It also makes social influence largely irrelevant. Whether you are from a working-class household or not, grit and hard work will get you much further in academia than networks and received pronunciation.
Universities are also great places to develop leadership skills and careers. All too often, this goes unnoticed in debates on higher education. Moreover, roles such as director of learning and teaching or head of department are surprisingly unattractive to most academic colleagues. As a result, entry barriers are often low, with deans willing to take a chance and appoint relatively junior colleagues. This was the case with me: I have just finished a three-year tenure as head of my department.
Such entry-level leadership positions offer a stepping stone into senior academic administration and the attractive pay packages that come with it. And even those positions are often undersubscribed. It is not uncommon for universities to struggle to appoint to deanships because the talent pool simply is not big enough. This stands in stark contrast to the many graduate careers whose upper echelons can seem all but impenetrable to everyone but white, privately educated males.
Indeed, academics from non-standard backgrounds are not just on a level playing field here. They may have a competitive edge because they are likely to be adept at working effectively and inclusively with colleagues from different backgrounds and across job families: one big criterion of successful leadership.
This is not the only advantage that a non-traditional background can offer. Academics still enjoy considerable academic autonomy; in effect, most will have to define their own research agendas and careers. And while it may be beneficial to have academic parents who can guide that choice, the direction and momentum required to sustain an independent research career must come from your own intellectual curiosity. Passion for scientific exploration is, in my view, critical for success – and if that passion has arisen against all the odds, you can be sure that it is real and will endure.
Researchers from non-standard backgrounds, including bilingual scholars, also have an advantage when it comes to interdisciplinary research: a strategic priority for universities and funding bodies alike. This is because constant interpretation from one context to another is their default modus operandi. It creates a cognitive diversity that is a strong enabler of interdisciplinary research and, hence, institutional success.
It is true that working-class people are less likely to be admitted to university. It is also true that the world of academia often seems alien to people whose families have had no previous exposure to it – and, for some, this may become a psychological barrier. But once you have finally entered the gates, my experience is that being different can serve academics extremely well.
Thomas Boysen Anker is a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Glasgow.
Print headline: Class is no barrier
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