The Society for Research into Higher Education


Working-Class and working in higher education: possibilities and pedagogies

by Carli Rowell

This blog reports on presentations and discussion at an SRHE event on 1 February 2023.

Doctoral study, despite its expansion, continues to operate as a classed pathway, a problem exacerbated by the surplus of doctoral graduates and an increasingly congested precarious global academic labour market. Although a prerequisite for academic careers, the doctorate no longer operates as a passport into the ivory tower. It is now accepted that the ‘leaky pipeline’ of academia, whereby ‘non-traditional’ (eg working-class, BAME) participants remain absent from professorial and higher managerial positions within UKHE is adversely affecting the diversity of scholarship and leadership.

SRHE brought together those who identify as coming from a working-class background and who are currently working in higher-education or aspiring to do so, as well as those with an interest in supporting working-class persons through the pipeline to and through academia. The event served as supportive space where delegates discussed the lived experience of being a working-class academic (aspiring to otherwise), the implications of a working-class background on pedagogy alongside contemporary barriers to transitions to and through academia and so called ‘strategies for successes’.

In the opening session I shared some findings from my earlier SRHE Newer Researcher Award project “No words, just two letters ‘Dr’”: Working-class early career researcher’s reflections on the transition to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia”. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The talk addressed some key emerging findings shaping working-class doctoral researcher experiences of getting in and getting on in UK academia. The important of working-class ‘others’ in navigating academics funding and the PhD application process and the implications for this upon the diversity of scholarship was a key theme, as were the geographical demands of the labour market which stood in conflict with the desires of many of the working-class participants who wished to remain living close to family and friends. This opened up discussion about the demands of academia for would be working-class academics.

Dr Iona Burnell Reilly (East London), following the publication of her edited book: The Lives of Working Class Academics: Getting Ideas Above your Station, reflected on the often uncomfortable experience of positioning oneself as being working-class in academia and pointed to the need to reflect on the working-class experience of higher education intersectionally, in conversation with other aspects of identity. Dr Burnell Reilly asked “Why do we feel the need to talk about working-class academic experiences?”, arguing that the legacy of elitism persists in relation to higher education. Class is not a protected characteristic and the history of the working class in HE suggests that classism has been the hardest bias to reverse (Crew, 2020). Then: “How have they [the w/c] become who they are in an industry steeped in elitism?” and “Do they [the w/c] continue to identify as working class or has their social positioning and/or identities shifted?”. Dr Burnell Reilly pulled out key themes central to the narratives included in her book, those of dual identities, imposters, the transformative power of education and the enduring stigma associated with certain classed accents. For her it was and is important that she continues to be herself in academia despite the pressure to assimilate, arguing this has brought her closer to her ‘working-classness’. Nevertheless, the questioning of one’s place (am I right to be here?); feelings of imposterism and the splitting of identities, (being one person at work and a different person at home) shape Dr Burnell Reilly’s experience of being a working-class academic.

In operationalising ‘working-class’ and how she came to choose authors to contribute, she felt it was important to allow authors to self-identify as being working class – things she would not say: “I’m not the class police”; “prove that you are working-class before you write a chapter”. Social class is something that is often difficult to identify with, a slippery concept that is difficult to define. For Dr Burnell it was not for her to define since, for her, social class comes from a person’s lived reality. Defining working-class “is not a problem to be fixed” – there are many different ways to be working-class.

Dr Burnell’s presentation was followed by lightning talks by Dr Teresa Crew (Bangor), Dr Steve Wong (East London) and Khalil Akbar (East London) (all contributors to The Lives of Working Class Academics: Getting Ideas Above your Station). Dr Crew said how in preparing for the talk, and when writing her chapter, she constantly reflected on the question of sharing, and how much she wanted to reveal about herself in her writing, noting that as academics we rarely write about ourselves. There were challenges and complexity in writing about being a working-class academic: “How do you write about the experience without coming across as being full of yourself?”, an interesting point given that not feeling full of oneself is a deeply classed feeling. Her experience of academia was littered with microaggressions; for Crew, “The social sciences are a wonderful discipline, but not always as welcoming as one might think”. Reflecting on her initial motivations to pursue higher education Crew spoke of wanting to be able to read the “posh newspapers”.  She finished with the observation that working-class aspiring academics often “only get one shot to get into academia and we need to make the most of that shot”.

Dr Steve Wong talked about his lived experiences of social class classifications across time and space, considering how working-class can mean different things in different contexts. Drawing on his background of being born and growing up in Malaysia, he reflected on how his own classed self-identity shifted as he moved to the USA for his university education. Considering the intersections of race, ethnicity, and class, the importance of accent as a class/ethnic/nationality marker once again came to the forefront of discussions. There are problems in identifying classes and the role of class affiliations. For Dr Wong, the problem of class is also the problem of belonging and the problem of being accepted or othered by other members of academic institutions.

Continuing the considerations on the importance of considering the working-class experience of academia intersectionally, Khalil Akbar discussed his sometimes uncomfortable experience of academia, especially when considering issues of Islamophobia, race, and the power of language. In writing his chapter Akbar said that, at first, such reflections did not feature as part of his chapter, but he felt that the omission was concealing important aspects of his lived experience. Akbar noted the sacrifices that his family had made in order for him to attend university. He had been motivated to attend university at first by his desire for escapism, prompting the difficult experience of feeling as if he was betraying aspects of his religious and cultural identity. For Akbar, working-class academics have the potential to foster a sense of belonging for non-traditional students. Reflecting on the whiteness of the establishment, Akbar shared his experience of wanting to leave university: having no one like him to talk to made for an isolating experience. With no one to turn to for guidance Akbar subsequently withdrew from university, returning to HE later in life. He emphasised the importance, to use his words, of reflecting upon “the academic I am becoming, not the academic I am” noting that becoming academic and feeling academic was an ongoing process.

Talks were followed by a safe, supportive and collegial discussion space whereby key themes were discussed and where delegates shared reflections on the themes of the day. The event provided space for delegates to feel empowered to think about how their working-class background had influenced and continues to influence their experiences of studying and working in HE. The importance of ensuring a clear pipeline to and through academia for working-class persons (and other non-traditional participants) was discussed, with calls for the role of the PhD funding application process to undergo greater scrutiny and more inclusivity.

It is hoped that this event will serve as one of many more SRHE events that seek to bring together academics from working-class backgrounds.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.  Email or Twitter @Carli Rowell.