Limiting access to academia limits its outcomes

Jen Hastings wonders whether working class students would see academia as a world they can enter.

Popular culture has gifted us with various images of academics – but light-hearted stereotypes aside, the job title often conjures up a specific type of person.

Some assumed characteristics seem fair- surely a certain amount of intelligence and grit is needed to get through a PhD?- but others (“male, pale and stale”) speak to a more worrying trait of academia. Its exclusivity.

In some ways the higher education sector is considered progressive. Boundary pushing research combined with student activism paints an inclusive utopia where a university education truly is for everyone.

Of course, we know this is an incomplete picture of life on campus. Hidden course costs, the BaME attainment gap and sexual harassment are just a handful of barriers those from marginalised groups face from their very first term.

But what about those who choose to make a career out of their studies? Do things get easier the more letters after your name, or are the aforementioned examples simply a sign of what to expect?

Counting the costs

Let’s start with the obvious matter of tuition fees. Whilst some postgraduate courses are cheaper than an undergraduate degree, fees can increase to tens of thousands of pounds, particularly for international students.

UK students can access a loan however, unless you have a financial safety net, you will probably need to work to top this up. Bursaries and scholarships are available, but many awards are based on prior academic performance.

Whilst it seems fairer to judge someone on their talent rather than financial status, I would question why working-class students need to achieve so much more than their middle-class counterparts just to get their foot in the door.

Progressing onto a PhD isn’t any easier. Competition for funding is fierce and you’re likely to be at an advantage if you were able to spend your spare time studying or gaining experience related to your chosen field, as opposed to juggling casual work out of necessity.

Interestingly, the earning potential of an academic isn’t necessarily a barrier in itself. Glassdoor estimates the average “salary” of a PhD student as £16,000 per year which, given this won’t be taxed, could be considered a healthy entry level pay cheque (with the added bonus of student discounts!).

The focus of people’s dissatisfaction, as this article points out, tends to be on the precarious nature of jobs in academia. The data cited in a UCU report earlier this year puts the number of academic staff on zero hour contracts at over 6500.

Whilst some people may enjoy the flexibility such arrangements can allow, the reality for many is a lack of basic rights, such as sick pay. As we often see in prestigious industries, there seems to be an expectation that an individual’s ambition will override the need for financial security.

And who is most harmed by uncertainty around their income? Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, as well as those from marginalised groups who are already up against pay gaps, such as BME and female staff.

Snobbery

Aside from the financial barriers to pursuing a career in academia, there’s an anecdotal sense of snobbery that exists within and around the sector (such as professional services roles needlessly demanding a postgraduate qualification).

It may be unintentional, but there are also certain practices that can leave those who aren’t from a middle-class highly educated family feel out of place – like the Oxbridge formal dining experience.

In her post on being a working-class academic, Caroline Bald, a social work lecturer and researcher, writes that she found she needed to speak a new language to be heard. I spoke further with Caroline about the subtleties that serve to question a person’s place in academia. She explains:

Middle class academia has a way of making itself felt. Be it repeatedly being referred to as early career when a PhD wasn’t an option whereas twenty years of field practice was. Be it the expectation of in-person unfunded conference attendance only for web-based lockdown conferences to be muted as ‘not the same’.”

It can be difficult to quantify the impact of experiences like Caroline’s. However, there is research that uncovers the underrepresentation of those from a low socio-economic background in academia. Sam Friedman, an Associate Professor in Sociology at London School of Economics told me:

Our analysis of the UK Labour force survey finds that only 14% of UK academics are from working-class backgrounds (in terms of their parents’ occupation) even though those from working-class backgrounds make up more than twice that figure (29%) in the workforce as a whole.

Friedman continues to explain how an academic’s career can differ depending on their background:

And even when those from working-class backgrounds enter academia they go on to earn on average £5k less than colleagues from more privileged professional/managerial backgrounds. Significantly, this class pay gap remains statistically significant even when we compare academics from different class backgrounds who are otherwise-similar in various meritocratic ways – same educational attainment, work the same hours, same training and experience.”

The pursuit of knowledge requires more than one way of thinking. The more diverse a team is, the greater its range of strengths and more innovative its approach. It is therefore in everyone’s interests, from Vice Chancellors to research funders, for academia to be a world that working-class students can realistically see themselves entering. Limiting its appeal will only serve to limit its outcomes.

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