What is the social class background of academics?

Author: Professor Paul Wakeling, Bridge Group Fellow

Concerns about equality and diversity are rightly high on the agenda in higher education at present. The representativeness and diversity of academic staff, especially at professor level, has been a recent focus. Campaigns such as #whyismyprofessorwhite have highlighted significant issues with the progression of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff into senior academic positions. The Athena SWAN initiative has arisen from similar concerns about an academic glass ceiling for women. And, of course, these two issues intersect, with shockingly small numbers of black female professors in UK universities. While there is a need for rapid progress and no easy answers, the depth and range of data about the characteristics of gender and ethnicity have at the very least enabled debate and provided a spur to action.

Similar concerns have been raised about social class. But whereas there is extensive data about the gender of academics and reasonably good data on self-reported ethnicity, we have almost no systematic data about the social class background of academics.

Working-class academics

There is no shortage of testimony. Recently there have been a number of pieces in the higher education media about the experiences of academics from working-class backgrounds, including a major feature in Times Higher Education and a call in the Guardian for working-class lecturers to ‘come out of the closet’. There is a Facebook group for the Association of Working Class Academics, a group associated with US-based Working-Class Studies Association. As I have written about previously, within academic literature, there is a veritable sub-genre of autobiographical critical analysis by scholars from working-class background, almost entirely working in social science and humanities disciplines.

Error: no data

While it is vital to understand these personal experiences, there is also a need for systematic data about the social class background of academics. Without such data, we cannot know the shape, scale or scope of the issues facing those from different social class backgrounds seeking to enter an academic career and progress within it. In fact, the last large-scale study of this question is now almost 30 years old. Using survey data from 1989 (and some from 1976), the Oxford sociologist AH Halsey found that 17% of his sample of several thousand had fathers in manual occupations (falling to 13% of professors). My analysis of data collected as part of the BBC’s Great British Class Survey in 2011 finds about 23% of the 2,500 academics completing the survey reporting working-class origins, although only 10% self-identified as working-class. By way of comparison, about one-third of UK undergraduate entrants in 2014 were from working-class families.

Given their efforts in widening participation, it is ironic, not to say embarrassing, that higher education institutions are not collecting data about or paying attention to this issue. A range of other organisations, including the Civil Service, the BBC, major law and accountancy firms, are making great efforts to collect data about the socio-economic background of their employees and job applicants. The Bridge Group has led work in this area. Universities are some way behind – in fact socio-economic data is not even collected about PhD students. All of this means we cannot tell to what extent progress through academic careers is affected by social class background. Are there pinch points in entry to the PhD or are problems worse afterwards? How does the distribution of academics from different social class origins vary across types of institution or subject disciplines? Is there a ‘class ceiling’ which matches the glass ceiling for women at professorial level? How does social class background intersect with other characteristics such as gender and ethnicity across the academic workforce?

Some practical steps forward

Measuring social class background is a complicated and contested issue, but that should not stand in the way of progress. There are simple measures which can be collected from PhD students, job applicants and academic staff to give useful and usable data. The measures recommended by the Bridge Group in advice to the Civil Service, which are similar to those recommended in my advice to Research Councils UK, are simple to understand and cost effective. By capturing information about parents’ social class and higher education qualifications, together with whether the individual was in receipt of free school meals, we can make rapid progress in mapping the socio-economic landscape of the academic workforce. Only with such an understanding can we start to work to put our own house in order.