Listening to staff experiences of social class

There's new research out on how social class impacts on staff

Michael Salmon is News Editor at Wonkhe

UCU has published The impact of social class on experiences of working in post-16 education, drawing on responses from just shy of 4,000 members in higher and further education. The survey finds that members “believe that social class impacts experiences of working in the post-16 sector”, and that this belief is more prevalent in those from working-class backgrounds, those in higher education, and those with protected characteristics.

The questions in the survey covered the role of class in areas such as recruitment, retention, workload, and casualisation, with a common refrain in the data being that “just over half” agreed that class impacted each area.

We find some oddities in the results, such as those respondents from working class backgrounds being more likely to be on permanent contracts, 84 per cent against 79 per cent of those not. The report floats the idea that this might be because working-class staff feel less able to accept precarious contracts – an idea worth exploring, certainly, especially in light of respondent comments elsewhere that recruitment panels prefer applicants who “have hopped from university to university all over the world”.

But there is also the suspicion that the self-selecting nature of the survey has led to a sample of respondents who do not really represent the breadth of the sector. How much stock can we place in the finding that, for example, 52.6 per cent of those polled agree or strongly agree that a working-class background presents a barrier to career progression?

Methodology aside, this is one of those issues where respondents’ perspectives alone are never going to tell us the full story – even if 80 per cent think there’s a problem, or only 10 per cent, what actually is the impact of class on, say, career progression? The effects of ideology, famously, are hard to spot.

However, as UCU notes, there is a lack of comprehensive research on the role social class plays in the sector, and it is not a topic universities themselves are looking into. The survey does not purport to be doing more than examining its members’ experiences in their workplaces.

In fact, it’s the personal testimonies that really give insight into the experiences that staff are having. And as ever, the main effect of social class is tied up with pay and personal finances:

Fixed-term contracts and short-term research awards seem to assume that the recipient has a safety net.

Earlier in my career I had to turn down a position at a prestigious organisation that would have massively boosted my career, because the pay didn’t cover rent, never mind anything else like student loan payments.

Lack of disposable funds for working class academics to make the international and institutional moves seemingly required of ECRs.

The ability to prioritise your own career and travel freely in this way is often highly dependent not only on personal finances and contacts, but on not having a working partner, additional caring responsibilities, personal or family health issues etc. which can make frequent moving impractical.

Beyond the question of financial security, responses point to other, likely familiar impacts of class for university staff:

Lack of experience and confidence around networking [and] a sense of feeling alien or out of place at times.

Then there is ‘confidence’ and the requirement to put yourself out there – which contradicts everything you’ve ever been taught about keeping yourself hidden, under the radar and not getting above your station. This creates a deep personal dissonance which requires a huge amount of emotional labour to overcome.

Nobody mocks me for my speech or accent; I just don’t get promoted.

Whether the sector is really ready for structural work on class is another thing. Certainly one of the central recommendations – that institutions should make social class a feature of EDI work – feels like it would be a substantial shift in the landscape. Other recommendations are noticeably more careful, for example that UCU should gauge its members’ appetite for the union to advocate for class to be a protected characteristic – the tentativeness here showing that UCU itself is not quite sure how far to go on this.

Listening and sharing is not a bad first step. We can definitely say that the report is timely and should help to inform the conversation on how academic staff are being impacted by the cost of living crisis – an impact which will be very unevenly distributed.

It has been an interesting week for fans of qualitative data. Hearing the voices and the lived experiences of those being researched has an undeniable power to enrich findings. This might be – as in this report – because good quality data is lacking.

It might be, as in The Kings Policy Institute’s new research on student views of freedom of speech, because sweeping divisions into strongly/mildly agree/disagree on complex, intricate questions leave us without a clear feel for what is really motivating answers.

Or it might be, as in Wednesday’s NUS publication on students and the cost of living crisis, because we hear statistics all the time, but hearing personal accounts of debt, privation and anxiety makes the bare figures really hit home.

3 responses to “Listening to staff experiences of social class

  1. One of the problems with looking at social class data is that asking people if they think they’re working class is not a reliable indicator. The New Statesmen had a piece a few months ago that showed nearly a quarter of those earning £100K or more think they’re working class, and that nearly half of those who own their property without a mortgage think they’re working class.

    1. According to your (implicit) definition, a 60 year old plumber who has paid off the mortgage on his modest terraced house is not working class and the recent graduate investment banker on £90k a year who lives rent-free in one of the several multi-million pound houses owned by her millionaire parents is working class. I think your (and the New Statesman’s) implicit definition therefore also has a serious problem.

  2. Bobby, I wasn’t suggesting that someone’s class should decided exclusively on their housing or financial situation. I was merely using these indicators as examples to demonstrate how class is a rather nebulous concept these days.

Leave a Reply