On class in the academy

Tank Green/ May 22, 2022/ Thoughts

This academic year, I have been working with three Black women on their university applications to try to give them the help no one gave me. One woman has not yet applied as she is a mature student juggling kids and a busy life; it will take time working through things with her. Of the other two, one got into all but one of her chosen undergraduate courses, and the other just recently received an offer from Cambridge to do her masters. We are both elated.

She and I met yesterday (so far all our coaching / feedback sessions have been via FaceTime) and the first question she asked me was: why am I not a Professor? That is a simple enough question but the answer is complicated, and it reminded me of this half-written blog on class in the academy. So, time to finish.

Last year, I was involved in some research on ableism in the labour market. One of the interviewees said something which irked me because of its dehumanising, quantitative underpinning, but which I also knew was true. It was the adage: ‘what gets measured gets managed’. His point being that, given that around a fifth of the UK working age population are disabled, we need to ensure that companies are measuring how many disabled people they are employing in order to fix the chronic underemployment of disabled people.

Another adage, and this time one which does not irk me, is: ‘nothing about us without us’. As a modern, political statement, this maxim has its roots in the disability rights movement of the late 1970s and 1980s. What it means is that outsiders should not be determining the outcomes for any particular group. It means that members of particular communities should be part of the decision-making process in respect of actions, policies, research, and agendas which impact them. So, if you’re going to do some research on disabled people, then disabled people need to be a part of the research team. Same goes for all other ‘protected characteristics’.

Generally speaking, academia has taken the ‘nothing about us without us’ adage on board, theoretically if not practically. Same with ‘what gets measured gets managed’. There are endless reports on ‘race’ or gender in the academy, and more recently, there is some traction around disability. As protected characteristics, ‘race’, gender, disability, and so forth are measured, and from there, managed (even if badly so). With this measurement and the obvious discrepancies it reveals, we get important initiatives, financial and otherwise, designed to support Global Majority students to progress with their studies and academic careers.

However, something which is not properly measured by universities is class, likely because it is not a protected characteristic and therefore there is no requirement for them to measure it. This is a grand oversight which is played out within the culture of academia daily. So whereas Black and Asian students and academics are able to call out the racism of the academy because they have stats and figures to back their assertions up, we do not have this information for class. We know how many Black professors there are, for instance, and armed with that knowledge, we can challenge the exclusionary landscape which has enabled the attainment gap and which keeps academia so white.

You know what else academia is, other than white? Or rather, you know what kind of white academia is? It’s middle-class white. Achingly, oppressively, exclusionary so. Do we know how many professors come from working-class backgrounds? Or better: how many female professors come from working-class backgrounds? I bet, especially in respect of white, female working-class academics, the rate is as low, if not lower, than Black academics of whatever gender and class background. And the sad truth is that it will remain so until we can say, without racism and without malice, that the white working-class are the one group still failed and forgotten by the academy, in theory and in practice. We are not measuring, we are not counting, and all the policies are designed without us.

To be clear, issues of ‘race’ and class in the UK are complicated, intersected, and overlapping. The absence or exclusion of a particular community of colour may be because of ‘race’, class, or both. But what all Global Majority students benefit from, irrespective of class, are additional funding pots and mentoring schemes designed to foster a greater inclusion. This is as it should be. In turn, the exclusion or absence of white working-class students is purely a class-based exclusion, an exclusion which operates both culturally and financially. What this group does not benefit from however, are funding pots or mentoring schemes over and above what all students can access, irrespective of class or ‘race’. I think this is an oversight, which, after more than a decade in academia, I do not think is accidental.

Further, whilst issues of ‘race’ and class have tended to operate adjacent to each other, they are actually two separate issues and need to be thought of as such. I think funding pots designed to positively affect ‘race’ based exclusions in historically white disciplines (e.g. many of the arts and humanities) need to be available to Global Majority students irrespective of class background as well as the white working-class, as both groups are missing from that academic landscape. However, there are other disciplines, especially in STEM or medicine, which are far more racially diverse. For instance, does a middle-class kid with south Asian heritage really need access to funding to get into medicine, just because they are south Asian? I would say no.

I think this conundrum stems from the fact that we have conflated the issues of ‘race’ and class for so long, because, historically speaking, it generally made sense to. However, things have changed in the last couple of decades and I think we need to be cognisant of the fact that many more Global Majority people are middle-class now. Fundamentally,  that’s a good thing in that it shows social mobility and a greater openness of society. However, it means that funding just for being Black or Asian doesn’t necessarily make sense in the wider context of UK class issues.

I never really wanted to be an academic because I don’t enjoy teaching (but dear god, have I loved coaching!). That said, even if I wanted to, I would not have been able to because the system is rigged. It is designed to ensure that those of us from working-class backgrounds are unable to follow through with an academic career. This is not because of our ability – I, for one, achieved the highest grade possible on each and every one of my degrees – it is because without some kind of external financial support, gaining entry to an academic career is nigh on impossible. This is especially true for white working-class students because there are no funding or support pots specifically for us to tap into, as there are for Global Majority students.

I think my case was compounded by the fact that I am both from a working-class background and a mature student: both are groups that most universities fail, especially the university at which I did my PhD (Exeter), where I had an absolutely horrendous time.

Although, having said that, St Andrews was pretty phenomenal in its support of me and the financial difficulties I encountered as I tried to work alongside my masters in the shadow of the 2008 financial crisis. So perhaps if I had stayed there for my PhD, things would have been different. I just couldn’t stomach the students who were a breed above and beyond the landed gentry. Or, at least, so they thought. I will never forgive nor forget my course-mate who literally physically recoiled in horror when I revealed my class background, as if I was a contagious disease he could contract simply by sitting near me.

Academia produces too many PhDs, especially in the humanities. So there are too many people applying for too few jobs. Worse, there is no investment in the humanities the way there is in STEM subjects, because culture and the arts have lost their social value. This, in turn, leads to fewer and fewer positions being available for more and more PhDs.

Despite being the incredibly lucky recipient of an AHRC scholarship, it was not enough to live off, so I was forced to work alongside my doctoral studies. At the same time, I knew that I absolutely had to complete in three years – the length of my scholarship – because once the stipend was no longer arriving in my bank account, I would need to replace it with income from a job. I knew that there was no way I could work full-time and complete the PhD, so the race to complete in three years was on.

What this meant was that I quite literally had no time to do the additional and academically necessary things before completion: publish (or at least have something accepted), and get some teaching experience. Here too I think I was failed by my supervisors, as if I had received better feedback, I would have known that I was working too hard (I passed no corrections which was unnecessary), and could have done less work on the thesis and freed up some time to write an article.

So even though I applied for post-docs and RA positions once I had completed, I got nowhere. Even though I had a very high-quality PhD, I did not have publications nor teaching experience. More, even if I had found an RA or academic teaching job, these entry positions are always fractional, underpaid, and only last for part of the academic year. Someone with financial backing (parent or partner) can take that risk, but for those of us who make it on our own, it is simply impossible: who will make rent? Worse, at the end of it all, I was burnt out and exhausted.

At the same time, I also made about 200 applications for research or policy related work in the Third Sector in the last few months of my PhD; I got nowhere there either. It was hopeless; I was desperate; so in the end, I was forced to take the same old crappy office jobs I had started the whole academic path to escape from.

I feel sad writing this because in reality, I wasted eleven years of my life trying to get a better job only to arrive, overeducated, at significantly worse employment outcomes than when I went in, all shiny faced and excited, to my undergraduate degree. I had hoped to turn the PhD into a book, but I never had the emotional energy due to being burnt out and having to work full-time. In many ways it was all for nought, but at least I achieved my aim of writing the story of racism firmly into the British historical record.

There are, of course, other factors at play. Namely desire, disability, and the increasingly fractious politics around ‘race’ in the UK. But what I have hoped to highlight here, is the hollowness of discourses around education as a tool for social mobility, such as laughable organisations like the Sutton Trust like to promote.

Academia is a stifling, deadening place which plays performative politics in service to whosoever shouts loudest. There have been enormous failures in how the white working-class have shouted, being so often contaminated with racism and other injustices; but the truth be told, we really are the last group being failed in entirety by the academy.

To close, if there are any working class kids, of whatever ethnicity, reading this, please do not be afraid to contact me if you need any help and advice re: university. I can, and am willing, to help, if I haven’t put you off entirely!

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