Geraldine Van Bueren: Why we need more working-class professors

Thursday 06 October 2005 00:00

When John Lennon sang "A working class hero is something to be", there were not many working-class professors in universities. Thirty-five years later little has changed. There are still far too few of us breaking through the class ceiling.

While gender diversity in university faculties has increased, class diversity has dropped. Most faculties in England reflect the backgrounds of the privately educated and middle class and are white. Although major obstacles remain, there has been significant improvement for women academics, most of whom are from middle-class backgrounds, but there are too few working-class and far too few black and Asian men and women in the professoriate.

The classic route into academia is via postgraduate education. The abolition of free university education means more poorer students find it harder to fund a first degree, let alone any further degrees or qualifications necessary for academic appointment. There is a paucity of financial support for working-class students seeking to pursue further degrees. The class bias found in many postgraduate programmes filters through to academic posts, and so the prospect for a more equitable academy in the future does not appear likely until this is rectified.

Universities have taken seriously the Government's laudable goal of increasing the numbers of undergraduates from non-traditional backgrounds. But far more is required. Academic faculties and departments now have to reflect the changed student community.

To take university equality seriously the Government must implement policies ensuring that all students from non-traditional backgrounds feel comfortable in university environments. This means that more professors, as well as students, have to come from non-traditional backgrounds to serve as role models and to recognise and support the particular needs of these students. Demonstrating how little progress there has been, students come with the same questions and concerns that those of us from poorer backgrounds had 30 years ago.

Clearly there is an overlap between class, race and gender, but students from poorer backgrounds have different identity concerns at university. Working-class students share many of the same problems entering university, regardless of their gender or ethnic background. University has been hailed as the way out of the working class. But working-class students may become alienated from their families and friends in direct proportion to their attachment to their new life, and they are often unprepared for the personal chasms which may open up, permanent or temporary.

Universities, which by definition focus on prestige and mobility, cast working-class students' experiences as irrelevant. Although feminism and blackness may be celebrated, there is no equivalent recognition of the contributions of working-class intellectuals.

University professors who would never make a racist remark or describe a female colleague as a girl have no compunction about referring to "bog standard comprehensives" or the need to invite "clubbable" people to university gatherings. Working-class pride has no place in academia.

Universities need to recognise that being working-class has advantages for students and academics, as it leads to a real sense of achievement and a deep appreciation of what others may take for granted.

A more equal appointment of working-class academics would have an impact on curricula, making them more relevant and sophisticated. Historically, curricula regarded women's contributions and methods of analysis as second class. However, the increasing number of women academics has meant the creative input of women in arts and sciences and the contribution of women to history are no longer invisible.

Similarly, black and Asian academics have been able to challenge entrenched assumptions. Discourse and curricula would also develop with more working-class academics, leading to a greater recognition of the importance of social justice, and how law and medicine are experienced by the majority of the population.

Universities have ethnic and gender monitoring of academic staff, but there is no such monitoring of staff from poorer backgrounds. This is partly because equal opportunities legislation omits discrimination on the basis of class, so the law does not create an incentive. However, the paucity of academic staff from working-class backgrounds needs to be recognised by the Government as a problem. A national survey of the numbers and experiences of working-class academics would be a positive first step.

The writer, a barrister, is professor of international human rights law, Queen Mary, University of London and at the University of Cape Town

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