Go back

Class action


Craig Johnston argues that working-class academics need to rely on more than chance

The fact that I am an academic could be thanks to my ardent anger at the teachers who told me to leave school. Or perhaps it was luck—a consistently underrated factor in the existence of many working-class academics.

Of course, luck and class status at birth are intrinsically linked to career trajectories, and so to the chance of ever becoming a ‘working-class academic. Where you were born, how much tuition and support you received (or could buy), the value of your network connections are all based on your class. Those working-class academics who have overcome the odds to gain PhDs understand what luck really is: a class struggle crafted over many years.

That is why the Alliance of Working Class Academics (AWCA) and others are starting to bring working-class academics together, to use our luck to others’ advantage, to build strong networks and be proactive on social media.

Its second annual conference, which took place this week, brought together working-class academics, practitioners, and researchers from across a range of educational and public sector settings to discuss themes around social issues and sociology, criminology, law, the physical sciences, psychology, community development, public health, class and compounded disadvantage.

Atypical academics

Although I—and others—have broken through the class ceiling that keeps out so many people with council-estate upbringings, working-class accents and identities are still unusual on academia’s social terrain, and being working class in academia is an uphill battle.

It often invites judgement, which reinforces a sense that we are atypical as academics. I have worked in professions, from psychology to social work, but when I became an academic, colleagues at a previous university openly questioned my working-class status. I have had academic colleagues debate my class by asking me questions about how many baths I had a week or comment on Facebook if I took pictures in a middle-class location on a weekend.

Ideas of class vary greatly. In the UK, one commonly used measure is the job of the individual’s highest-earning parent when they were 14. But class is much more. It is something bred into us, from the colours and sounds of the tenement stairs, to the culture of a rugby pitch or a pub, to the texture of the menu at The Ivy. I can still feel the council estate I grew up in—I am it. This reflects the way class identity, particularly in the UK, can be rooted in family background and persist through a lifetime.

Lawful discrimination

That is why working-class academics and students face deeply entrenched normative and attitudinal barriers in and through different forms of education. Yet despite all the prohibitions on discrimination against other characteristics, it remains lawful in the UK for universities to discriminate based on class.

Working-class people are regularly overlooked by those employing differing approaches and analyses of inequality. Indeed, class as an analytical category has fallen out of favour, while its material impact continues to affect the lives of those excluded from different areas of the public sphere.

This has left empirical and theoretical gaps in understanding of how class—as well as race, gender and disability—intersect with working-class knowledge, insights and lenses in shaping outcomes and perpetuating cumulative disadvantage.

Offering answers

Like many others, I am proud of my working-class background. But how do I and others respond to such neglect and negativity?

The AWCA is trying to answer that. It is offering working-class doctoral students opportunities to talk about their common concerns, and receive advice and guidance through support groups. It has also created the world’s first University Code on Equal Opportunity for Working Class Students and Academics

This code, which can be adapted to different global cultures and terminology, calls upon universities to acknowledge that students and academics from a richly diverse range of working-class heritages add economic, social and cultural value to communities—as well as enhance the scholarship, work, productivity and research impact of universities.

The AWCA also works with various government departments and has developed a charter, based on the university code, which has been taken up by several universities, to ensure best practice for lecturers from working-class backgrounds.

Doctoral support sessions run by the alliance have revealed that, while some efforts have been made to make master’s programmes more socially diverse, many unacknowledged and unaddressed obstacles block the pursuit of doctoral studies.

Policies to promote social mobility mainly focus on undergraduate education, but this limits career options for many working-class students, and the assumption that they do not—and should not—aspire to doctoral studies stereotypes these students’ intellectual capacities.

This week’s conference addressed these and many other issues, as well as bringing together working-class academics to talk about ways in which they have been lucky—and not. 

Craig Johnston is a senior lecturer, and deputy chair and co-founder of the AWCA.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight