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How Working-Class Academics Are Set Up to Fail

Precarity and low pay in modern universities mean that young academics often have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. If neoliberal reforms continue, the future is clear: academia will once again become the preserve of a social elite.

Academia is very hard to get into, and it’s enough to get you wondering if it’s by design.

First, you must be lucky enough to get funding to complete your postgraduate studies. Unlike the undergraduate student setup, postgraduate loans are very real, usually from commercial banks. Now that the Career Development Loan is apparently no longer available, there’s nothing much that can pay for your studies beyond self-funding. So, one must hope and pray that they will be of the fortunate handful to receive a full studentship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Coming from an old pit town, from a family of miners whose luck post-Thatcher has always been less than stellar, my MA could only be completed through a bank loan, and thanks largely to the charity of friends who let me stay in their spare room rent-free. For my PhD, I received a scholarship. Then comes the fork in the road. Having finished the PhD, early career researchers (ECRs) must look for the next step: work.

You will then immediately become aware that this work comes exclusively in the form of scraps of teaching: my ‘best’ teaching year provided an income of £4,500 (if only my students knew they get as much from their part-time bar job as I do from teaching them!). You can decide to stick around, but you’ll have to take up at least one other job – which means all the essential research output you must produce to have a chance of proper employment must be done… when? In between the 2 or 3 jobs you’ve taken as you struggle to keep the lights on.

Not Your Domain

In my experience, university departments and academic staff get very uncomfortable when faced with the issue of social class. The further into postgraduate studies you go, and especially the further into struggling as an ERC you endeavour, the less ‘like you’ everybody appears to sound, think, and be.

Any working-class ERC will tell you that the people around them – even if they’re coming up against the age of thirty – receive rent assistance. They have to, surely: they’re going on without funding, but they don’t have a job… I might not be a mathematics scholar, but something seems off about that.

It’s often hard to gauge exactly where this money comes from: well-off parents, savings accrued from growing up under well-off parents. Whatever the source, it’s evidently unavailable to individuals who have spent their lives living paycheque-to-paycheque.

So, you – the working-class aspiring academic – failed the ‘birth lottery’ miserably, at least in an economic sense. What to do, then? Persevere, with multiple jobs, research publication commitments, until burnout… Or, the other option, the one that’s increasingly becoming the most viable: to quit.

For people from working-class backgrounds, unemployment for any period is anathema. I’ve been unemployed and signed on several times throughout my life, and seen friends and family go through the same thing. If you’re brought up in a working-class atmosphere, you’re often imbued with a strong work ethic based on the belief that if you don’t work hard every day of your life, you have failed as a person. Unemployment strips away the very identity of working-class people.

Unfortunately, ERCs must expect at least a few months out of work at any given period. Either a misunderstanding of working-class finances or a lack of empathy means higher education institutions don’t recognise that even 1-2 months of unemployment for people like us means no rent, no food – no choice but to leave for pastures greener. And that’s the rub: the question for would-be academics as they continue to struggle, accrue debt, and exhaust the good will of their family and friends, becomes clear.

Who Can Afford to Stay?

The Covid-19 crisis has made this question very urgent, very relevant, and extremely quickly. At the start of the pandemic, UK universities began declaring themselves ‘in the red’. Belts were tightening, and the more superfluous or easily quashed contracts were jibbed off with no chance of renewal.

We’ve seen this at Goldsmiths not a few weeks ago, but it’s happening everywhere. Likely all of us working at universities have received the obligatory employer’s circulation: we’re sad to see people go, but if there’s no work for them, we can’t keep them on. “Sorry, not sorry.”

Of course, there is work – there has to be. Although the recent pandemic had universities jittery about the possibility of students staying away for a year. Nonetheless, there has been a record rise in students applying for the year 2020-21.

Perhaps universities are suffering from an overall lack of income? Looking around any campus these days, the sheer number of new halls and facilities shooting up suggests otherwise. Maybe, after all that construction, there isn’t enough money to go around. But then, the six-figure salaries of so many vice-chancellors implies this cannot be true.

It’s enough to make any working-class academic ask, where the hell’s my future then? I’ve entertained the possibility that I’m just not good enough for academia – extreme imposter syndrome can never truly be exorcised from the soul of a working-class academic – but I think, instead, it’s because of the strange, unique contradiction inherent in academic success.

My thesis passed with flying colours, was quickly transformed into a monograph and is now due to be published. I’ve had papers out, or in press as I type, and I’m even contracted to produce a second book for another publisher. What’s more, my research sits firmly within the ‘hot topic’ of the digital humanities. As a scholar, I’m a resounding success!

There are, in fact, many in my position, who feel obliged to now ask: why are we producing ‘high-class scholarship’ only to be brought in as-and-when to mop up excess teaching work, without any promise of even a chance at a real lectureship? Upper management at UK universities can ignore the fact we deliver over half of all classes. They can ignore the fact that to tear us away from even these meagre earnings will swell more senior staff’s class numbers to an absurd degree. Permanent staff and student experiences will both suffer, but it’s not happening yet, so presumably it’s okay for now.

Working-Class-Free Academia

Covid-19 has made this whole situation worse, but it is only a catalyst, an aggressive motivator that has sped up what’s been happening in UK universities as they’re increasingly ran like pseudo-businesses.

That grey area between graduating from postgraduate studies and entering the world of higher education work will kill – and is now killing – the chances of those to whom steady, reasonably-paid work is the only option. The real kick in the teeth here is that the more that fragmentary contracts become the new normal, the less promise there ever will be of a steady, ‘regular’ or ‘real’ job. And this will – crucially – further entrench the idea that academia is for those with other access to money, or with no external (e.g. family) commitments.

I’ll probably quit academia soon. I imagine many will in the coming few years, likely not by choice. Those who are to whatever extent free to do as they please, endowed as they are with mysterious sources of excess money, will continue to flourish. But it’s easy to see the direction of travel for everyone else. In fact, it’s worth saying it: academia and higher education teaching and research will likely see a near-total lack of working-class voices in the very near future.