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Why do universities have so few working class staff?

The Social Mobility Foundation's Sarah Atkinson asks why the sector struggles with staff socioeconomic diversity
This article is more than 1 year old

Sarah Atkinson is Chief Executive Officer of the Social Mobility Foundation

History has shown us that higher education can be a social mobility superpower.

Before the pandemic, pupils who attended university after being eligible for free school meals in year 11 were almost four times more likely to be in the highest 20 per cent of earners at 30-years-old than those who did not.

This rises to ten times more likely if they attended one of the four most selective universities in the UK.

Covid context

Today’s context is more challenging. Watered down catch-up measures have failed to recoup lost learning, with the attainment gap growing and the damaging impact on younger pupils now becoming apparent. In 2022, 275,000 Year 6 pupils in England left primary school without basic maths and English skills – that’s 41 per cent, 50,000 more than 2019.

The mental health impact of successive lockdowns is still emerging, and the rising cost of living is pushing first-generation students towards the exit door. It is in these powerful headwinds that universities must repeat the social mobility feats of the past.

Difficult times call for innovative thinking. Fortunately, answers can be found within.

Workforce diversity

While student horizons have been broadened in the lecture theatre, socioeconomic diversity in the higher education workforce has flatlined. This is not befitting of institutions where knowledge and ability is the prized possession.

It presents challenges for academics and professionals from working-class backgrounds, who must navigate the cultures of their middle-class dominated peer group; and is alienating for working-class students, who may intuit the idea that ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’. And, of course, social mobility intersects and can boost other diversity and equality priorities.

We can learn much from admissions about the benefits of recruiting from a more socially diverse talent pool. Yet increasing the number of people from working-class backgrounds who get in is only part of the solution. Good social mobility employers also create equitable pathways to progression and close the Class Pay Gap. Our research confirms that, right now, a pay gap of £5,807 exists between academics from working-class backgrounds and peers from middle-class backgrounds.

This is evidently unfair. Talented people from working-class backgrounds are unfairly shut out of opportunities and, if they somehow manage to unlock the door, they then face a pay gap that holds them back financially.

A regulatory eye

This is not only bad for the ‘marketplace of ideas’, but it will also increasingly pose a reputational risk. Scrutiny on student access and participation is increasing, with a new approach from the Office for Students (OfS) through an equality of opportunity risk register – there are risks presented by workforce inequalities too.

We know from the recent OfS outcomes report that universities have boosted commitments to increasing attainment in schools, and to improving the evaluation of this work. Taking a lead on workplace social mobility is the natural next step for institutions with a rich heritage in widening participation. Disputes over working conditions and pay only add to the urgency to act. Steps to improve recruitment, retention and progression will count for little if the university is not publicly seen as being a good employer.

Why, then, has no higher education institution ever entered the Social Mobility Employer Index?

The Index, as the leading authority on employer-led social mobility, is an assessment and benchmarking tool. It gives employers access to personalised advice on their social mobility strategy. The value of the Index is shown by the return of top employers like KPMG, BBC and PwC who have entered for six consecutive years. Joining these employers would help universities rescue social class from being the forgotten dimension of diversity.

Workplace social mobility can be the next social mobility frontier for universities. Becoming more accessible and inclusive is morally right, good for the recruitment and retention of staff, and will benefit students. Help is available and universities must take advantage of it.

The Social Mobility Employer Index opens for entries in March. I urge all readers to ensure their employer takes on the mantle and strides forward on social mobility once more.

9 responses to “Why do universities have so few working class staff?

  1. Amongst academics it nowadays does not count what you know, but who you know. It is all about “networking” and “leadership”, not knowledge or skill.

  2. Thank you Sarah, it’s really nice to see a piece on class. I do wonder how easy it is to classify class nowadays in the context of ‘if you can’t see it, you can’t be it’ unless you are equating it with a regional accent which is completely different – many of us drop our accents in order to fit in and many people with regional accents had plenty of money growing up!

    1. Believe me, if you’re working class working in HE (or, in fact, alive in the UK as it moves back to a feudal system) it is very very easy to classify class. We live with class discrimination every day.

    2. I’d challenge the headline of this article. There are loads of working class staff at Universities. By multiple definitions cleaners, porters, catering staff etc would likely be classified as working class / from a WCB. What we are discussing here (and is referenced in the article) is the class pay/progession gap in academia.

  3. Open a Social Justice Index, rather than a social mobility one – we are not cards to be shuffled into a middle class deck to satisfy a metric!

    The end of class discrimination – the end of class division – is about justice, not mobility. Mobility implies leaving your class behind. This is impossible, undesirable, a solid piece of “we’re all middle class now” negation of working class identity. Justice means acknowledging the worth, the vital creative, economic, social and political force of working class people, groups and identities and correcting the injustices our society inflicts on them. Mobility does not.

    1. Completely agree. Often the premise of social mobility is “working class = bad, middle class = better”. I’m proud of everything I have from my WCB; pride, humour, being astute and straight talking. I miss many of the attributes I’ve lost through studying and working in HE; my bloody brilliant Yorkshire accent, mannerisms etc. This process of flattening one’s personality to fit it (study) and get on (work) also robs students from WCBs of the opportunity to see themselves in staff and leadership roles.

      1. I couldn’t agree more Rose and Ben. Social mobility is a middle class notion underpinned by social engineering to make us middle class. We need “cultural capital” and “mentoring” if we want to be like the folks on the hill. It’s the universities and professions that need to change not the people.

  4. Is there not something also here around Bourdieu’s notion of “habitus” – a person is in society but their experience of society is also in them. We internalise the social context within which we have grown up and as careers professionals we seek to address these issues on a behavioural, experiential and occupational awareness basis. HE is a key systemic point in our education where social justice can be addressed.

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