It’s not exactly news that Academia can be an elitist profession, nor is it news that class –and income-can play a big role in education and therefore academic experience. From the rations of those from Private Vs State schools in University, to the impact of increased tuition fees pricing out those from lower income brackets. As a Working-Class PhD student, this became magnified, the difference between not only other students, but also with my supervisors and other academics. In financial and cultural terms I became very aware of being ‘different’ because of my background.
Although I’ve yet to meet a PhD student I’d call ‘rich’-a funded PhD brings in little more than living wage, however what many from better off backgrounds do have that most working-class PhD’s don’t is a financial safety net; the knowledge that Mum and Dad could bail them out if needed. Or indeed can supplement their income. That lack of safety net is the crucial thing for working class students. Add to this that everything in academia costs money-books, computers, printing, transport to do research, conferences-and as University budgets are slashed, more and more of this falls to the PhD student. And so the gulf between those with financial security and assistance and those without becomes more apparent. Meanwhile, supervisors and established academics on salaries triple what PhD students on average earn, question our commitment when we fail to attend yet another conference, fund another research trip or sacrifice unpaid ‘experience’ for paid work.
There’s also a cultural gulf, the shame of having to admit there’s a gap in cultural experience. But it’s the extras you miss out on compared to the Middle and Upper classes-the piano lessons, the theatre trips, the museums the culturally based holidays. The little things add up and push you further from your so-called ‘peers’. Education between the Secondary educated and the Public School educated also adds to that. And we know Higher Education continues to favour those from the latter, particularly the further up the ladder you rise (as with almost every profession in fact) And admitting these cultural gaps feels like being more of a fraud than most PhDs already feel. You don’t get to PhD level without a lot of hard work and a certain amount of natural aptitude, but no amount of reading can replace the kind of cultural upbringing that is just different in Working-Class households. It’s a difficult thing to explain to those who are from that background, but certain cultural ‘staples’ were just not on my radar.
Both of these factors impact the end product and the approach to life post-PhD. Firstly there’s the impetus to finish, and to finish before the money runs out. Academic greatness is sacrificed for finishing while you can still pay the rent. Along with this there is a sense of ‘Working Class Guilt’ that you should be getting on with it, getting a real job and for many supporting your family, rather than others whose family are supporting them. The options at the end are limited too. We can’t wait around for a job, doing unpaid work, going to conferences and networking. Because that safety net again isn’t there.
It seems at present academia is driving out Working-Class students at both ends. Working-Class students are being put off at entry level with fee hikes and grant cuts. Meanwhile those seeking the higher levels of academic attainment are being pushed out by financial and cultural differences. There is increasingly less chance of Working-Class PhD students hanging on in academia, because they simply cannot afford to wait for a job. I can defend my knowledge background, attitude and tastes. I’m not ashamed of where I come from, but increasingly I felt not welcome and not able to wait. I’m not ashamed of having different cultural experience and I’ve cultivated my knowledge on my own terms. My background gives me a killer work ethic, and a no nonsense attitude that doesn’t suffer fools. All that I could bring to academia and quite frankly academia could do with. I work damn hard, and I bring a slice of diversity that the middle class bastion of academia could do with.