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Ross Goldstone

February 11th, 2021

Is social class relevant in higher education today?

0 comments | 32 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Ross Goldstone

February 11th, 2021

Is social class relevant in higher education today?

0 comments | 32 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Ross Goldstone shines a light on class-based research in higher education and shows how it illuminates social inequity in academia

Coronavirus has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives, with the higher education (HE) being one of the myriad areas experiencing large disruption. However, amongst the disruption instigated by the pandemic, there is also tremendous continuity and replication. This is because the coronavirus pandemic has reinforced and exacerbated a plethora of societal inequalities that have deep socio-historical roots, including those linked to class, neurodivergent, and ethnic and racial identities. Recently, there has justifiably been considerable attention directed towards gendered and ethnic inequalities in society,  specifically in HE, epitomised best through calls to `decolonise the university.’ However, as early indications of the coronavirus pandemic have indicated, existing social class inequalities will be exacerbated, and this will have powerful ramifications for HE as a sector. Furthermore, the pandemic has revealed the intersections between different characteristics, for instance, how socio-economic status, occupational differences, and structural racism has led to ethnic differences in coronavirus infections. Understanding class inequalities can therefore contribute to better understanding other forms of inequality across society, particularly in HE. Therefore, this blog hopes to reflect on the state of academic research regarding social class HE inequality, while also thinking about possible developments in the field.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, much attention was devoted to the rising socio-economic inequality that was exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis, which solidified stagnating social mobility in the United Kingdom. At the same time, the discourse of meritocracy was confusing and justifying the class-based inequalities that were growing. These inequalities were increasing despite the expansion of HE which promised, to the half of all young people who now progress onto university study, that doing so would equal better employment, prospects, and ultimately, middle-class lives. In many ways, the expansion of HE came to conceal the rising class inequalities in society. This is because despite the benefits the expansion of HE has provided, a plethora of research has shown that existing social class inequalities have come to be replicated across the sector in terms of participation and experience.

This is largely consistent with literature questioning the central tenet of the human capital theory, upon which much HE policy rests: that education pays and is to some extent the great equaliser.

Sam Friedman has recently shown how individuals indulge in against-the-odds success narratives, wherein, they come to foster meritocratic legitimacy for the outcomes they enjoy, regardless of the structural privileges that have shaped their trajectory. Not only do those from more privileged class backgrounds disproportionately enter the top universities, but where those from lower social class backgrounds do enter these institutions, they are still found to have a very different HE experience. Diane Reay writes vividly of the injuries of class that those from working-class backgrounds must endure if they wish to achieve the meritocratic promise of social mobility at elite universities. Moreover, HE can also come to mystify and legitimate social class inequalities. While social class shapes the transition into higher education (getting in), research demonstrates that it comes to influence experiences within (getting on), and following university (getting out) too. Friedman, demonstrates that the economic, cultural, and social resources those from higher class backgrounds are able to draw upon, are significant, and sometimes more important, to labour market outcomes. This is largely consistent with literature questioning the central tenet of the human capital theory, upon which much HE policy rests: that education pays and is to some extent the great equaliser. However, there is significant space for further exploration of the way class shapes HE participation, experiences, and outcomes. Research might pay particular attention to the classed experiences of the postgraduate research (PGR) student trajectory in the academic labour market, for example.

Recent research has begun to explore the significance of social class to the HE teaching workforce. This has been largely ignored, despite the university student experience being shaped by interactions with teaching and pastoral staff. Research has specifically demonstrated the role social class operates on progression into, and experience of, employment in the middle-class field of academia. Carole Binns, in Experiences of Academics from a Working-Class Heritage, shows how an emotional ambivalence, a reconciliation of working-class family histories and a middle-class present, is a difficult experience for many socially mobile individuals in academia. Many academics from a working-class heritage are shown to speak powerfully of how, despite negative experiences to the self from their fractured classed identities, these very identities enable them to recognise and support working-class students effectively. What Binns concludes from this is the promise that a more diversified higher education workforce might make to the student experience, which is becoming much more diverse as a result of the widening participation agenda. However, perhaps reflecting the problematic relationship between HE and social class inequality, classed transitions into teaching in HE is still a nascent area in need of development. This is despite the precarious nature of social mobility experienced by those from working-class backgrounds in HE. For example, Teresa Crew alludes to the microaggressions and hostile encounters that reveal class dislocation for the working-class and creates difficulties negotiating HE employment for this group.

In this way, the existing evidence has firmly demonstrated the problematic relationship between HE and social inequality, where the former functions both as a site and a source of the latter as well as its panacea.

higher education is likely to function more as a reinforcer and legitimator of ... inequality, wherein the prize of meritocracy is captured overwhelmingly by those from more privileged class backgrounds

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to intensify the inequalities which come to structure the experiences and life chances of all across society, it is of significant importance to recognise the continued relevance of social class to HE today, in research, policy, and practice. Research must continue to innovate in conducting class analyses, recognising that economic indicators of class background overlook its multi-dimensional nature. This will become increasingly important as HE participation and attainment, an indicator often used to capture the non-economic dimensions of class advantage, captures more students from a working-class heritage. At the same time, the way in which classed identities intersect with disability, gender, geography and a number of other identities to constitute the HE experience for students and staff together must be appreciated. Without doing so, HE is likely to function more as a reinforcer and legitimator of such inequality, wherein the prize of meritocracy is captured overwhelmingly by those from more privileged class backgrounds, and those who are able to participate in the social mobility story via HE must live with the imprint of social climbing, (e.g., dislocation from origins and cleft habitus). Thus, there is a need for a pedagogy akin to, what Crew coins, a “working-class academic pedagogy” which will enable HE to render visible the very class inequalities it aims to confront. Placing social class and its changing dynamics, at the heart of researching, understanding, and teaching about equity in HE is therefore an important step in creating a more equitable university in the future post-pandemic world.

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Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.

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Image credit: Ben Seymour on Unsplash

About the author

Ross Goldstone

Ross Goldstone is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.

Posted In: Shifting Frames

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