Work­ing-class schol­ars still face prej­u­dice

Louise Mor­ley, di­rec­tor of the Cen­tre for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Equity Re­search, Univer­sity of Sus­sex

THE (Times Higher Education) - - LETTERS -

Work­ing or study­ing in uni­ver­si­ties was once re­served for the elite.

In the past the academy was not de­signed for work­ing-class peo­ple but, even to­day, work­ing-class iden­tity is still prob­lem­atic in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Cur­rent ideas about so­cial mo­bil­ity still present work­ing-class iden­tity as a site from which to es­cape. Uni­ver­si­ties are seen as res­cu­ing work­ing-class stu­dents from poverty, so­cial ex­clu­sion and un­em­ploy­ment, and en­hanc­ing their life chances as long as they con­form to cur­rent aca­demic cul­tures. This deficit con­struc­tion of work­ing-class peo­ple has been the sub­ject of con­sid­er­able aca­demic de­bate.

In 1997 Pat Ma­hony and Chris­tine Zm­roczek pub­lished an edited col­lec­tion of es­says on the theme Class Mat­ters: “Work­ing Class” Women’s Per­spec­tives on So­cial Class. The book fore­grounded work­ing-class women’s ex­pe­ri­ence of study­ing and work­ing in higher ed­u­ca­tion, chal­leng­ing the trend to talk about work­ing-class ex­pe­ri­ences from a mid­dle-class per­spec­tive. Twenty years later, lit­tle progress has been made in this field.

The in­tro­duc­tion of tu­ition fees and the rise of tem­po­rary teach­ing con­tracts, al­lied to the in­her­ent hi­er­ar­chi­cal struc­ture and mid­dle­class male dom­i­nance of the univer­sity, has un­ques­tion­ably fu­elled class dis­crim­i­na­tion. We ur­gently need new crit­i­cal the­o­ret­i­cal vo­cab­u­lar­ies, val­ues and po­lit­i­cal ac­tors to start think­ing dif­fer­ently about so­cial class in the con­text of higher ed­u­ca­tion.

To cel­e­brate its 10th an­niver­sary, the Cen­tre for Higher Ed­u­ca­tion and Equity Re­search at the Univer­sity of Sus­sex re­cently in­vited Pat and Chris­tine, along with some of the orig­i­nal con­trib­u­tors to the book, to de­bate “Does Class Still Mat­ter?” with newer re­searchers from work­ing-class back­grounds in to­day’s academy. By shar­ing in­ter­gen­er­a­tional ex­pe­ri­ences of study­ing and work­ing in higher ed­u­ca­tion, it was clear that the is­sue of so­cial class goes be­yond de­mo­graph­ics and the sim­plis­tic no­tion of counting more work­ing­class peo­ple into the academy as an in­di­ca­tor of so­cial progress.

Speak­ers cited count­less ex­am­ples of mis­recog­ni­tion and dis­re­spect for their aca­demic con­tri­bu­tions and ex­per­tise, as well as a gen­er­alised feel­ing of not be­long­ing to net­works and cul­tures that were con­trolled by the elite. Class dis­crim­i­na­tion re­mains a sig­nif­i­cant bar­rier in women’s aca­demic progress, of­ten tightly bound up with other in­equal­i­ties, in­clud­ing eth­nic­ity and sex­u­al­i­ties.

Ex­clu­sion could be covert – based on lack of in­vi­ta­tions to net­works, com­mit­tees and in­flu­en­tial po­si­tions in the aca­demic com­mu­nity – or more overt, with dis­cus­sion about how ac­cents still sealed peo­ple into class iden­ti­ties.

De­spite steps to im­prove ac­cess in uni­ver­si­ties, there is an in­sti­tu­tional fail­ure to recog­nise that work­ing-class peo­ple bring a wider range of un­der­stand­ings and life ex­pe­ri­ences to the academy.

As a re­sult, and re­gard­less of their in­tel­lec­tual achieve­ments, ca­pa­bil­ity or po­ten­tial, work­ing-class staff and stu­dents are side­lined or of­ten feel that they have to over­work to prove their value.

The re­lent­less strug­gle to demon­strate worth and counter class prej­u­dice rep­re­sents an ad­di­tional work­load for work­ing-class peo­ple. It can also sow the seeds of self-doubt as mer­i­toc­racy and “ex­cel­lence” are of­ten cited as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for over­look­ing marginalised groups. Speak­ers re­ported ex­am­ples of how they had re­peat­edly been made to feel worth­less. The chal­lenge was not to in­ter­nalise this neg­a­tiv­ity and to stay cre­ative and com­mit­ted to one’s in­tel­lec­tual work.

So how do we im­prove the sit­u­a­tion and en­sure that so­cial class is not a bar­rier to higher ed­u­ca­tion?

I would like to see uni­ver­si­ties ap­point and pro­mote more di­verse staff, and ques­tion how and which lead­ers are ap­pointed. In ad­di­tion to the ob­vi­ous male dom­i­nance of lead­er­ship, lead­ers are still over­whelm­ingly drawn from elite back­grounds. We need to chal­lenge cur­rent fund­ing regimes, such as tu­ition fees, and de­velop more in­clu­sive cur­ric­ula.

Most im­por­tantly, though, we need to un­der­stand, through our re­search, how so­cial class is a process, and to chal­lenge the myr­iad ways in which academia re­in­forces and re­wards class priv­i­lege. For ex­am­ple, op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­ter­na­tion­al­is­ing the stu­dent ex­pe­ri­ence via study-abroad pro­grammes are still over­whelm­ingly en­joyed by those from wealth­ier fam­ily back­grounds.

Gen­dered, classed and racialised power is re­layed via every­day prac­tices and ex­clu­sions and mi­crop­o­lit­i­cal prac­tices. Pol­icy needs to be ac­com­pa­nied by struc­tured change in­ter­ven­tions and con­tin­u­ing sta­tis­ti­cal mon­i­tor­ing and eval­u­a­tion.

Rather than try­ing to fit more un­der­rep­re­sented groups into ex­ist­ing struc­tures, we need to spend time imag­in­ing the type of in­clu­sive univer­sity of the fu­ture that we de­sire.

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