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Tackling Elitism

Written by Daniel Geen.

Tackling Elitism is not another university society, nor is it merely a support structure for working-class and first-generation students (though it is also that). Tackling Elitism is an operational tool for students to express frustration regarding the rife culture of elitism pervading our institution and the university system at large. It is a safe space in which students can share experiences of elitist discrimination and micro-aggressions and channel such energies into making institutional change, from the bottom-up. Importantly, this space is open to all those who seek to eradicate elitism from our university, whilst maintaining a Widening Participation (WP) student core. As such, Tackling Elitism works with students across the intersections of WP that may or may not face economic disadvantage, such as first-generation students, BAME students, and care-providers, amongst others. Here, attention will be paid to the personal experiences of a white, male, English, working-class, first-generation student - me. Thus, this article will act as a set of loose reflections on the individual and systemic manifestations of elitism in the university.

Elitism penetrates the university system in varying magnitudes, on systemic and individual bases. In my personal experience, I enrolled in the university studying Physics back in 2016. The people I met there and became close with were largely working-class individuals from across the UK. What I did not realise at the time was that I had possibly encountered a phenomenon symptomatic of systemic elitism. Could it be that the reason I had encountered so many students with similar backgrounds to myself was a result of the fact that enrolling working-class students cannot (easily) detach themselves from the anxiety of financial security when they graduate? Was I choosing to study STEM over the arts, humanities or social sciences (despite any greater passion for the latter) for the prospect of financial security alone?

During my first year, I realised the extent to which my motives to study Physics had been influenced by the prospects the degree promised, rather than by a genuine passion for the subject – a position I was not alone in. Given this, I decided to switch degrees to History & History of Art (a dramatic shift, I’m aware, but I had been studying Architectural History throughout my first year which provided me with an impetus to change). I was lucky: I had the support from my friends and family that encouraged me to switch degrees, over and against the anxiety of increased future-job precarity that this new direction entailed. Others, I know, still carry the regrets of not following passions in the arts, humanities and social sciences over their hope of not having to struggle economically as their families and communities continue to do.

Since transferring into the humanities, the institutional elitism I encountered did not share the subtleties as in Physics - in the form of a (relatively) large working-class cohort - but stared me right in the face. This began on my first day, when I met with my new Personal Tutor, an archaeology professor who told me he had excavated in my local area, which, when you live in the middle-of-nowhere in the North-West of England, is a big deal. ‘What on earth does a young boy do growing up in [my home village]!?’ he asked incredulously upon our first meeting. To which I responded, ‘oh you’ve got to be creative'. He laughed. ‘Frizington [the village neighbouring my own] is the armpit of the world’ he said, and I laughed and agreed.

Though I will contend that the joke was funny, with hindsight, that comment set a tone for the elitism I would later continuously encounter. Staying with this example, one can see the entitlement that underlies this ‘joke’, believing it permissible to ridicule the local community of a working-class student they had just met. Frizington is no Chelsea, I shall grant them that, but to reduce a community of people, struggling in the face of increasing adversity, to ‘the armpit of the world’ highlights the unwarranted, elitist disrespect toward the working class and their communities that is permitted and facilitated within universities.

This is not an isolated example. Through meeting other WP students and discussing elitism they have encountered, the list of examples goes on, with many sharing the same experiences across different years and schools. From not knowing the Tate museums like the back of your hand; not being fully informed on Milton’s Paradise Lost; feeling your accent diluting after so many ‘you need to speak more clearly’s or ‘I can’t understand you’; having to accept your ‘disadvantage’ because your high school never taught Latin or economics. The list goes on, and these experiences often characterise the position of WP students in the university as out of place - as other.

The frustration felt as a result of these experiences punctuating your university life is understandable. However, the aim of Tackling Elitism is not only to set up a peer-support system in which these experiences can be shared, but, in discussing and drawing attention to these issues, we can highlight how one’s university experiences can be needlessly classed. In drawing attention, we can work on developing strategies for the university - such as developing a staff etiquette specific to approaching the less privileged students who will be present in their classes. This is not so that academics can begin to plug the gaps filled by private/grammar schools and less so by state schools, but to bring attention to the fact that these gaps can exist, and to ignore them (assuming a knowledge of Latin for example) is to increasingly obstruct many WP students from achieving academic success.

However, what is at stake for the working class within universities is not simply obstruction to academic success, but the increasing eradication of working-class representation (in staff as in students) pursued by the university in the name of ‘strategic economic’ imperatives. Beginning the next academic year (2020/21), the bursary offered by the university to students from England and Northern Ireland based on income is due to be cut by more than 50%. Pre-2020, for households earning between £1-£16,000, students entering were entitled to £7,250; as of 2020 students from households earning ‘under £21,000’ are entitled to £3000.[1] Even if it were to be argued, as Peter Matheison has, that the previous bursary was too generous, that does not justify such a huge reduction when most individuals’ maintenance loans hardly cover rent and bills let alone secure comfortable living within a capital city - particularly if students do not have the luxury of relying on family for financial support.

Interestingly, this reduction of necessary financial support for working-class students is happening alongside huge expansion of the university. The Edinburgh Futures Institute is seeking to double the number of postgraduates in the next 10 years, despite there being little demand in the labour market for such an influx in interdisciplinary-focussed postgraduates. Thus, in the name of expansion and growth for growth’s sake under a guise of economic strategy, the working class are being targeted as a group worthy of disinvestment.

This increase in postgraduate students brings me nicely to a further, more pressing issue facing working class representation within the university system, which also nicely illustrates the relationship between individual and systemic elitism. University staff have been striking for the last 4 years, with no signs of stopping soon, in the name of protecting their (rightfully earned) pensions, protesting the casualisation of labour and high-workloads among other issues. Peter Matheison, in a ‘Question Time’ session last November, said he regretted the strikes but celebrated the fact that ‘only 40%’ of staff belonging to the UCU had given notice of their strike. It was a facile effort by Matheison to strike a blow to the credibility of staff strikes on the basis of their lacking a mandate, whilst ignoring the fact that staff have no duty to give notice of their striking. In the name of tackling elitism, we must support our lecturers and all university staff in their strikes for their own health and future security, but also for the survival of working-class representation within the university system.

This issue of safeguarding working-class representation within the university follows from my discussions with academics regarding their reasons for striking. Although they are all rightfully concerned with their pensions, much attention has been paid to the casualisation of labour within academia. Speaking to academics about this issue, they have explained how teaching/research fellow contracts, the first step on the academic job ladder, are offered on a one or two-year basis (if you’re lucky to achieve that - large numbers are simply forced to continue onto precarious, post-doctoral research due to the lack of available jobs). When in these contracts, one’s work life is defined by precarity. Given their nature, the university has no obligation to keep on these teaching/research fellows, let alone promote them to permanent roles, meaning that all academics must be constantly arranging for their departure from that university (and that city in most cases) when their contract ends. This involves writing/researching journal articles and books (the university offers no funding for teaching fellows, who are still required to be conducting research in order to justify their position as an academic and to secure future job roles); teaching and organising myriad undergraduate and postgraduate courses; alongside general admin of marking essays, proposing exam questions, responding to emails, meeting with students and so on. Given this, one can see the unbelievable pressure currently being placed on academic staff, regardless of income.

However, what is concerning for working-class students, in particular postgraduates and budding academics, is that in the face of job precarity, academics may find themselves out of work for an unknowable amount of time before they achieve another (temporary) contract. Or, they may find themselves in a Teaching Fellow contract like one that is currently being advertised by ECA: a 9-month contract, 7 hours per week, PhD essential, £6,759-£8,064 per annum – at least you won’t have to pay back your student loan eh ha ha x.[2] Thus, an elitist assumption is made by the university system that these individuals can afford to live in between (or even on the salary provided by) temporary contracts. Though this issue is arguably a niche one, specific to young working-class academics, the relationship this has to broader, systemic elitism should strike a chord with anyone regardless as to whether or not they will find themselves in this position. The casualisation of labour, particularly in the form of temporary contracts, aids in the elimination of working-class academics, allowing for the perpetuation of universities as by and for elites. Thus, the research pursued, the methods of teaching endorsed, the handling of finances (top administrative job roles held by academics), will increasingly be motivated by the assumptions and prejudices of an elite group.

At worst for working-class, WP students, this will lead to their continual decline from universities as accessibility and support is increasingly targeted. At best, the paternalism of the system will intensify, ensuring the continued marginalisation of WP students, as they are treated top-down by elite individuals who will not or cannot appreciate their experiences. A university system run by and for elites entails a brain-drain from the UK through the obstruction of diversifying viewpoints, preserving the myopic vision of a small social stratum to represent British academia.

Speaking out against elitism and supporting our university’s staff in their strikes is not only essential for the improved academic and pastoral satisfaction of prospective and present WP students. It is necessary within the context of increasing disincentives for working-class entry into the world of academia, which will have direct implications on issues such as who education is for and what issues deserve academic attention, all the while bifurcating the haves and the have-nots. Finally, although this article has focussed on my personal experience as a white, working-class, first-generation English student, this process of cementing the university as a place for elites will have intersectional implications; individuals across and between marginalized identities regularly lack the elite credentials the university is so keen to value – especially that of being wealthy.

[1] ; [2]

Learn more about Tackling Elitism here.

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