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Getting to grips with the rules of the game: reflections on being a first generation academic

  • 3 October 2022
  • By Louise Folkes

HEPI is running a series of blogs on the changing faces of academia in collaboration with the British Academy. The first blog in the series was kindly contributed by Dr Louise Folkes, Lecturer in Social Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, UK.

Starting university when you have no idea what to expect is daunting. I remember my induction session in the aptly named ‘Council Chamber’ of Cardiff University’s Glamorgan Building. Seats arranged in a semi-circle, stone walls awash with imposing paintings, regal red carpets and chairs – I remember saying to myself ‘so this is what university is like’. I stared in awe at the two stone sculptures of men that frame the front of this room as I tried to take in induction information. It was as though a different language was needed here to get by. As I traipsed around rooms signing myself up to seminars for semester one, I did not even know what a seminar was, let alone a semester.

Fast-forward three years and I was back again, this time for postgraduate induction. This time, I thought to myself, I have some mastery, some understanding of how this institution works. This slowly dissipated as I immersed myself further in academia. Attending conferences, keynote speeches, wine receptions, research grants, the Research Excellence Framework, publication processes – another world entirely. I vividly remember finding out what a viva examination was in the first year of my PhD and thinking ‘if I had known about that, I would not have signed up for this!’. Entering academia when you are the first in your family to do so is like constantly treading water to stay afloat. It requires a constant effort to understand and carefully manage the world around you, otherwise you sink.

I cannot imagine I am the only working-class student to feel like this: after all, we are still significantly underrepresented within higher education. UCAS data uses deprivation indices POLAR4 (a measure that classifies local areas according to the young participation rate in higher education in England and Wales), and the Index of Multiple Deprivation (or IMD, a relative measure that ranks the deprivation of areas using a variety of domains) as proxies for socioeconomic background. The latest data shows that applications of 18-year-olds to university from IMD quintile 1 (the most deprived) have steadily increased from 20.6 per cent in 2013 to 33.1 per cent in 2022. However, applications from IMD quintile 5 (the least deprived) have also risen from 48.5 per cent in 2013 to 56.6 per cent in 2022, still demonstrating the significant dominance of students from more privileged parts of the UK.

Data around the social class positions of UK university students is particularly opaque and hard to track down. Social class is the one demographic not protected by the 2010 Equality Act and so active monitoring of the social class make-up of institutions is not happening as rigorously as it could (and should) be. It is difficult to define and ‘measure’ social class. Often proxy measures are used such as eligibility for free school meals, your main carer’s occupation at age 14, type of school attended, and if you are a first-generation student (being the first to go to university in your family). In my experience, social class is better explored as a lived experience, or how people feel in certain spaces. 

Belonging in social fields is highly classed (and gendered and racialised). Belonging also plays a crucial role in students’ choice of institution. This was demonstrated clearly in the work of Bathmaker et al (2016) in the Paired Peers project, which compared working- and middle-class students in the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol. The work exemplified the stratification in higher education, indicating the inequalities that continue even after working-class students ‘make it’ to university. How can you feel like you belong when you are in a space where nobody looks like you, talks like you, or dresses like you, and when you are worried about speaking up in front of others in case you embarrass yourself? 

The eyes of the paintings of the dead white men on the walls press upon you, reminding you that this is a space that has been historically reserved for white men of higher social classes. When you go home you cannot explain to your family what it is you are spending years of your life doing. They do not understand the procedure of the peer-review journal article, ethics applications and ethnographies. You have to switch that part of your life off and straddle the social space where you no longer fully belong. It is a constant battle to remind your friends and family who have not been to university that you are still grounded, you are still you, and you do not think you are better than them. This has been noted in work by sociologists such as Sam Friedman and Diane Reay. Essentially, social mobility does not come easy.

But it is not just about the background of the students who enter higher education – it’s also about the background of the staff who make up the institution and again, information about this is not easily accessible. A recent study by Morgan et al (2021) in the US found that of the 7,204 academic staff they surveyed across eight disciplines, staff were up to 25 times more likely to have a parent with a PhD, and this nearly doubles at prestigious universities. Their findings indicate that the professoriate is dominated by the socioeconomically privileged which shapes their scholarship and entrenches their position. Based on the accounts of working-class academics in the UK, it seems the picture here is not too dissimilar.

Universities will not be inclusive, welcoming spaces for all until there is broader representation amongst the staff who work in them. University education should be for everyone regardless of social class background; however, as it currently stands the UK’s higher education system acts to further reproduce class-based inequalities.

HEPI, in conjunction with the UPP Foundation and the University of Sussex, is hosting a fringe event on ‘Student Access and Success: What Works?’ at the Conservative Party Conference today. For further information, see the HEPI website here.

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  1. Emma Chivers says:

    Great post, this really resonated with me and as I am really struggling with imposter syndrome as I am desperately trying to get to the end of my doctoral thesis. Actually, reading it made me feel better and gave me a confidence boost!

  2. Sharon Alcock says:

    Thank you for this. Your descriptions of your first days totally resonate with me – also a first generation university attendee (and now academic). The experience was also echoed throughout a career in broadcasting, where I became one of the 20% of Editors who were not privately educated.

    There is still a disproportionately large representation of those from the private education sector in our universities (and in my classroom) and whilst all of my students are valued in their own right, I still see (and am haunted by) echoes of my own confusion and lack of basic social and educational skills and understanding amongst those who are first generation and/or have a state sector background.

    Much like all discrimination cases, I feel it is important to stand up and be counted: to demystify this experience. I make a point, in my introduction lectures, welcome week workshops and tutor groups, of telling the students that I have the background I have. Usually no comment is made or needed, but I want them to see that I am proud of my achievements from humble beginnings, and that those listening (silently) with a similar background, are understood and seen by lecturers. I think it makes a difference.

  3. James Fuller says:

    Really interesting article. Certainly chimes with me as a comprehensive student, first to uni then to postgraduate at Oxbridge then a career change in my late 40s to work in a university. What a lot of culture shocks!

    I did go back to an Oxbridge dining room recently and noted a very much wider range of genders and ethnicities staring down from the walls so progress is clearly being made or at least signalled!

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