CW: mentions sexual harassment
A teacake and a portable phone charger. Unlikely objects to trigger a tirade against the state of academic practices in the UK, but here you are, about to read one anyway.
Whilst I like tea cakes, and like a fully-charged phone even more, I have to admit I struggled to understand why I was being given them in my delegate pack at an academic conference that cost hundreds of pounds to attend. The canapes and wine served every evening felt even less essential. When I attend an academic conference, I’m there to learn and to share, to aid in the coproduction of knowledge and to strengthen academic networks. I enjoy free food as much as the next person, but I don’t need wasabi-flavoured meringue to do any of those things, and would happily have ‘sacrificed’ it if it helped make the conference more accessible.
How many working class students missed the opportunity to attend this conference, one which has provided me with contacts, references, frameworks and research directions for my PhD that I may not have had otherwise, because of the extortionate price? The entry fees for some of the big-hitter conferences can rack up into the hundreds, and that’s before you pile on accommodation and travel costs. I am, fortunately, in an incredibly privileged position by way of the generous funding I have secured from my university, but many postgraduate students will not be so lucky, and the culture of academia is horrifically inventive in its ways of excluding them.
To some extent our higher education system still acts as a filter, squeezing out those from poorer backgrounds. Less state support is available for postgrads than undergrads (although this has improved in recent years) and working for your university to raise funds is a slippery slope of casualisation, poor pay and generally exploitative conditions. Hidden course costs on top of this can make postgraduate study a financial nightmare for working class students who don’t get the support that was available to them at undergraduate level (meagre and debt-heavy as it is).
working class students are less likely to make it to the highest academic levels, and those that do can face daunting financial pressures
Research has shown that working class students are less likely to go on to postgraduate study (although it is not straightforwardly the case that financial issues are the reason for this). Even worse, those students are less likely to make it to the end of their undergraduate programme. In short – working class students are less likely to make it to the highest academic levels, and those that do can face daunting financial pressures and be excluded from certain experiences by lack of resources.
And this is in a sector that is spending frankly stupid amounts of money on our Vice Chancellors and other senior members of managerial staff. As the UCU chief, Sally Hunt, put it to VCs recently, “It’s time to move on from defending your own pay and conditions and instead look at what you can do to improve those of the people who create the output that wins the awards – and especially those at the bottom – the young, the casualised, the next generation.”
It’s not just working-class students that are excluded from academia and academic-related events either. Conferences can at times be inaccessible for disabled academics, ethnic minorities are underrepresented at postgraduate level and the work of many female research students is hampered by sexual exploitation.
Academia thrives on diversity – without it, our disciplines will be stunted and reflect the thinking of too-narrow a segment of humanity. My discipline, psychology, has shown us how different upbringings and experiences can profoundly impact how we think, how we approach, prioritise and conceptualise certain issues. If we really believe in the pursuit of truth, we need to be incorporating as many of these differing viewpoints as possible in order to approximate reality, or at least understand where we might be diverging from it. To allow a system that to some extent excludes working class or other minority group students is not only morally wrong in itself, but it will also lead to poorer knowledge accumulation. LSE researcher Lisa McKenzie has written recently of a practical repercussion of this, arguing that an ‘out of touch, middle-class academic elite’ completely missed key indicators during the EU referendum campaign, arguing that they simply “do not see the everyday troubles of working-class people”.
There is a deeper issue here too of how working-class individuals are perceived in terms of education and intelligence. I have lost count of the times I have been told I am not working class because I have read Aristotle or am studying a PhD or some other such nonsense. Whilst it is important to recognise that you are less likely to reach the heights of academic study in the UK if you are from a poorer background, we should not let this mutate into an assumption of intellectual inferiority in working class communities.
Education will be richer and our understanding deeper for the acknowledgement of them
Throughout its history the working class movement has had a rich culture of intellectual vitality, and produced many notable thinkers, activists and social commentators. We know that it is through the physical labour of the working class that this country was quite literally built, but we often forget that many of our proudest legislative, social and political achievements owe a debt to the thinking and campaigning of working class individuals and communities. In a society where ‘working class’ is almost synonymous with ‘uneducated’ and where our higher education still to some extent excludes working class individuals, we risk missing the lessons of this vital historic contribution, and hampering future contributions too.
So what is to be done? Our ultimate aim should of course be fully funded higher education, up to and including postgraduate level, but there are many immediate actions that could be taken as well.
- More money from universities should be earmarked for scholarships and bursaries at postgraduate level. Part of this can come from reducing the absurd salaries senior managers earn, and questioning the expense of some of the new buildings sprouting up on our campuses.
- Academic organisations need to think carefully about where and how they host major conferences and smaller events. They should do what they can to reduce needless costs or provide assistance through poverty funds.
- We should be expanding on the campaign by NUS to ‘Liberate my Degree’, recognising how curricula, assessments and academic culture can hamper the achievements of minority groups. We should be seeking to incorporate the work of minority groups into university modules, out of recognition of the fact that the contributions of many sections of society have been ignored over the years. Education will be richer and our understanding deeper for the acknowledgement of them.
Even in 2017, higher education can exclude minority groups, and we’re all the poorer for it. It’s time for change.
Featured image credit: sushi♥ina
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