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Confronting higher education’s class divide

  • 18 January 2024
  • By Lee Elliot Major
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Lee Elliot Major, the UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility and a former CEO of the Sutton Trust.

Me and my mate Dave in 1987. I like to think my beret has a hint of Che Guevara about it. But others think Curiosity Killed the Cat, a band whose lead singer, Ben Volpeliere, wore a similar-looking cap. For a fleeting moment during the 1980s hats (and hooped earrings and eyeliner) were the IN look – even if like me you came from a place like Feltham, West London, famed for its youth prison.

Three and a half decades later Dave’s photo now features in the class ceiling exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. Organised by the university’s social mobility network, the exhibition celebrates working-class lives. I’m honoured to be featured but seeing the image has made me reflect on how class-ridden our elite universities remain.

When Dave took the pic, I was a university hopeful, retaking A-levels at Richmond Tertiary College, living on my own in a room on social security payments and working shifts at the local petrol station. I was a first-gen student as the Americans like to call it; the first in my family to stay in education beyond 16. That autumn I would leave for Sheffield University. My life would change forever.

Please don’t mistake this for another ‘poor kid done well’ tale. My journey is a bittersweet one. I’m a classic social climber, becoming the country’s first professor of social mobility at Exeter University and a former CEO of the Sutton Trust. The problem you see is that I fear that individual tales of upward mobility like mine only help to ensure that the class inequities in our education system remain unchallenged and unchanged. They also suggest a very narrow view of what success entails.

“Changing class is like emigrating from one side of the world to the other,” Lynsey Hanley wrote in her book Respectable, “where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch with the people and habits of your old life.” Like all awkward climbers I still suffer from ‘imposter syndrome’ and feel a slight shame when calling out today’s persistent class divisions.

In my latest book, Equity in Education, I summarise research on class biases in schools: well-intentioned teachers unconsciously slip into stereotypes, interpreting working-class accents, slang or dress codes as signals of lower academic capacity. I’m convinced the same class bias plays out in university lecture theatres. Many students haven’t been cultivated in the cultural and social norms of academic life and are unknowingly written off as a result.

Today’s social mobility narratives are stuck in deficit mode. This implicitly assumes that working-class pupils are inferior and need to be mended to fit into an unchanging system, rather than valuing different cultures and exploring how to make our own cultures more inclusive. Labels such as ‘disadvantaged students’ or ‘WP (widening participation) students’ invite us into the trap of deficit thinking. They create a false us and them dichotomy when the truth is that there is a continuum of disadvantage and advantage in any student cohort. Students from working-class homes can, moreover, boast many assets – resilience, different perspectives, the capacity to juggle many roles, and more besides.

Amid stark class divides in student enrolments, the professoriate meanwhile has become an increasingly privileged profession, with a growing precariat of junior staff. Academe oozes the tacit cultural capital that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued condemns the working classes to also-rans.

Many people in universities work tirelessly to improve opportunities for young people from under-resourced backgrounds like mine. But we need to up our game amidst a world of widening inequalities. The post-pandemic poverty-stricken pipeline of pupils heading our way over the next decade doesn’t bode well.

Developing an equity approach in higher education is the only way we will ever level the learning playing field and would involve a few simple steps.

First, improve the socio-economic diversity of our staff, both academic and professional. It is indefensible that class remains the missing dimension of current diversity drives. Cultures only truly change when we hear the perspectives from different backgrounds.

Second, promote the systematic use of contextual admissions to admit students with lower grades from under-resourced backgrounds, and do not punish universities for doing so. All university league tables should embrace social mobility rankings.

Third, acknowledge the social class biases that permeate higher education. Students and staff should be conscious of their own privileges, avoiding lazy assumptions and certainly not ridiculing others because of their accents. Let’s replace damaging labels such as ‘disadvantaged students’ with ‘students from under-resourced backgrounds’. More than anything, we need to ditch deficit mindsets.

Looking back at my 19 year-old self, I’m left wondering what I would have made of the 55 year-old I am now, shorn of working-class accent (and hat). Disappointed I guess that I became just another middle-class clone.

The class ceiling exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton runs until 3 February.

Equity in Education is published by John Catt Educational.

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  1. This is great. Says it like it is

  2. Ros Lucas says:

    Whilst education in countries maintain fee paying schools, unlike Finland, the socio-economic barriers will continue…
    Smaller classes, more appropriate, flexible and alternative curricula with exams at 18 and better graduate training for Secondary and Tertiary would release funding and and provide better equipped teachers.

  3. Ken Roberts says:

    I recall in the 1960s reading about ‘the myth of cultural deprivation’ along with your proposals for ending class bias in education. What happened back then? A lot, but this did not prevent class privilege being maintained.

  4. David Murray says:

    Thank you for this insightful and engaging piece. It further strengthens the conviction that all leaners have a right to equity in education. To ensure this right for learners in HE it’s the institutions that have the responsibility to change and adapt for the learners, not the other way round.

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