Too many poorer students feel they don’t fit in at university. We need more academics proud to be from a similar background. As the new university year approaches, it seems the adage “not for the likes of us” remains pertinent for working-class students. Figures on participation rates in higher education clearly show that although numbers are rising, universities are still attracting a lower proportion of working-class women and men, based on socio-economic classifications. This is despite a slew of thinktank proposals on how higher education institutions could encourage more working-class students.
A major problem is cost. I know from talking to students from poorer backgrounds that the £9,000-plus fees, with accommodation and living expenses on top, strike fear into them and their parents alike. Yet its not just the exorbitant cost. It is the fear of not fitting in that can put prospective working-class students off from applying. And they are more likely to drop out even if they do get in, because they can feel they dont fit in to the unfamiliar surroundings. This unwelcoming environment isnt confined to common rooms, bars and sports fields, where no one may speak or behave like them. It also emanates from the lecture halls and classrooms, where there are few academics who sound or look like them.
Working-class students and academics can often be seen as outsiders and feel alienated in these institutions. We dont know how many working-class academics there are, as figures are not collated, but my experience as one tells me they are underrepresented. My anecdotal evidence cannot be substituted for research, but students from poorer backgrounds do have the added pressure of trying to conform to middle-class values while they study. This is hardly a recipe for academic success and also raises questions about whether poorer students can form grounded and productive intellectual relationships with lecturers who may have very different cultural values.
As a working-class woman from a state comprehensive in West Yorkshire, with a few low-ranking GCSEs and no A-levels, I felt all at sea when I went to a university down south. My accent stood out like a sore thumb and my lack of previous education meant I got the lowest mark in the first exam I took, forcing me to rethink my time there. I could easily have dropped out. But I was extremely lucky because at each of the two institutions I studied there were female teachers who had similar backgrounds to mine to whom I could connect. They understood my lack of confidence and devoted time and energy to what can only be described as my voracious and insatiable interest in history. They supported me to progress and to win prizes, a scholarship and finally achieve a doctorate.
When I began teaching, more than a decade ago, I was very keen to retain my northern accent and working-class credentials. I didnt want to change to “fit in” with the middle-class teaching teams because I felt it was important to show students that intellectual capability isnt related to a southern accent, or to middle-class values. Cleaning a pub for a living and stacking supermarket shelves did not take away from my PhD and subsequent scholarship.
One way to increase the number of working-class students would be to employ more academics from similar backgrounds. This would make students feel less alienated and more at home. But its not so easy to appoint more when many academics dont admit to their class. I was determined to be working class, northern and educated. But some hide their background, changing their accent, dress and taste. Do they fear discrimination?
Most lecturers of all classes experience “impostor syndrome” at some point, but I feel they should be confident that intellect is not shaped by class. I hope many of them eventually come out of the closet for the sake of improving the learning environment for poorer students. Otherwise very few working-class youngsters will have the role models to inspire them to achieve a successful academic career. Of course, not all students wish to teach, nor progress up the academic ladder. Many are hoping to land a much higher-paid job. However, the lack of working-class academics sends a clear message about the value of their teaching qualities compared with their middle-class peers.
Class Matters and Care-Less Spaces, the potted histories of working-class female academics, reveal that they have to prove themselves to a much higher degree than their middle-class peers, are less likely to hold high positions or lead projects, and experience a lack of a sense of “care, generosity and respect”. Perhaps this is why there are still so few of them.
Appointing more will not immediately bring thousands of new working-class freshers through the academic portals, but it would demonstrate that universities are encouraging working-class intellectual inquiry. The power of higher education has led to huge improvements in middle-class womens opportunities and influence on the world. It could have the same impact on working-class womens lives. Through access to higher education they could find their political legacy, be able to govern their own lives, and make a greater mark on ours.
• Melanie Reynolds is an associate lecturer at Oxford Brookes University