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  • Calum Carson

Academia Needs Working Class Kids

When I was growing up, the thought of going to University never really occurred to me. Not in a despairing, dramatic fashion because of an overwhelming ambition to enrol in higher education being hindered by my circumstances: it was just not something that myself or those around me ever really talked about.

My greatest ambition in my teenage years was to become a professional skateboarder, and I thought of little else. I attended a secondary school with a seemingly endless number of supply teachers and experienced my fair share of bullying, and found my own respite from this world of education through skateboarding in the evenings, weekends, and even early mornings. There was something about the sport that gave me focus, confidence, and the drive to push myself further: everything that I wasn’t receiving at school, which I became increasingly disenchanted with. Still, I managed to scrape into Sixth Form with nothing above a C grade at GCSE, and enrolled out of a desire to keep my Mum happy more than anything else. I drifted aimlessly through my first year at Sixth Form, doing poorly in my end of year exams.

During the summer holidays, however, I suffered a severe injury while attempting a trick down a rather ambitious set of stairs, and had no choice but to give up skateboarding for the foreseeable future. This loss of the central focus of my life coincided with returning to Sixth Form for my second year of studies as (after a series of other students dropping out) the lone person in my A Level Politics course, which thanks to the unexpected individual tuition of a wonderful teacher transferred my drive from skateboarding into education, and a sudden ambition to pursue my studies further at university, including the retaking all of my first year exams to help make this a reality: a rather strange story, perhaps, but one that I have a suspicion has echoes in the journeys that many working class children have taken on their own roads to university.

Once I had arrived at university in September 2005, studying Politics at the University of Leeds, I began to be aware of the differences in the backgrounds between myself and the vast majority of those around me. Growing up I had never really been in contact with anybody from a private school, not in a unequal-divide-sort-of-way so much as everyone around me was simply from similar circumstances to my own: here, however, the divides we still see in British society were very clear to see. I found it most confusing, and very interesting from a psychological point of view, to understand why many (not all!) of those I met with a private school education thought themselves somehow above the rest of us, when it was not their own talent that had secured their educations for them so much as it was their parents’ own circumstances: it was my first real experience of what is commonly referred to as “entitlement”, of which we still see so much in today’s political and economic climate.

However, I also noticed that those students with such conceits did not necessarily perform to any higher standard than the rest of us in seminars and exams, and thus while I felt like a “fish out of water” among them, I never felt “beneath” them, so much as I remained baffled by their air of superiority. These experiences did, however, provide me with two important insights: an awareness that after unexpectedly “making it” to higher education despite lacking these advantages I should take it seriously and work hard to make a success of it; and a new ambition to help other students from working class backgrounds break through and into the world of higher education, as I had.

In order to help pursue this ambition, myself and a number of other undergraduate students began a “Student Ambassador” team, the aim of which was to visit underprivileged schools in the local area and get their students talking about higher education: and, most importantly, showing them that they too had a place at higher education institutions around the country. In a piece I wrote at the time (which can still be seen here) I emphasised that the political arena needed more working class representation, along with universities in Britain as a whole. These efforts coincided with a national emphasis on advancing social mobility and increasing working class representation at universities which is not promoted as widely today, but which with the ever-larger rises of tuition fees is more important than ever.

Having now studied for a Masters in Social Research and a PhD, along with working within a university in an administrative position for several years, all my ongoing experiences have taught me that higher education can only gain from a greater number of individuals from working class backgrounds joining the academy. Not only is there a social justice argument to this ambition, but there is an academic one too: that there is intellectual value in diffusing access to universities among those from different backgrounds who may be able to pursue different areas of research, borne from their own experiences and interests. For example, my own PhD focuses on exploring the incredible success that the Living Wage has had on both the lives of workers, and the success of the employers that they work for: an interest borne from my own personal experiences of the struggles of low-paid workers and their daily struggles, and the importance of higher wages in combating growing rates of in-work poverty in Britain today.

There are a thousand other examples within academia of such research, many of which you can see through the individuals involved within this new movement. I am proud to support this campaign, which will help make the ambition of higher education for everyone who wishes to pursue it, regardless of background, just a little bit more of a reality.

Calum Carson is a doctoral researcher at Leeds University Business School, exploring the impact of the Living Wage and the growth of precarious employment.

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