Last semester was a rocky time for student politics in Liverpool, with controversies aplenty: you can read about them here, here and here. What’s clear is that gender is on the agenda, and other marginalised groups – such as BAME, LGBT+ and disabled students – are also in line for work on liberation. Since this lines up well with the kinds of initiatives in place in other students’ unions, this looks like a step in the right direction, and, for many people, better-quality representation begins with focusing on the diverse and varying needs of different student groups.
However, though this discussion uses the language of intersectionality, one core identity marker has so far been largely missing in discussions: social class.
For as long as universities have existed, their existence has been tied to class privilege. From the early days of Oxbridge, when rich aristocrats with near-endless assets would embark on leisurely tours of Europe following their exclusive education, to more recent times, when staying in education beyond the age of sixteen marked you out as a posho, the rich kid student stereotype has a long history with deep roots. In 1950, just 7% of 17-year-olds remained in education – a figure strikingly close to the proportion of society with access to the independent school system. Since then, change has come in slow stages, triggered by governments committed to widening participation – but in the Russell Group, change has been slower than elsewhere. Evidence suggests that working-class students continue to feel unwelcome at Russell Group institutions, in some cases shunning them altogether because of a perceived elitist culture.
Admittedly, Liverpool was never Oxbridge. For many, Liverpool appeals because of its balance: good academics without the snobbishness. Liverpool has among the best participation statistics in the Russell Group – with 25.9% of students coming from lower socioeconomic groups, a figure scoring low compared to the 33.4% of England’s population within such groups, but favourably compared to the English Russell Group average of 20.0%. Despite this, it’s no secret that the student population looks – and sounds – quite different to the rest of the city.
One second-year History student told The Sphinx: “There is some truth in the idea [that Russell Group universities are unwelcoming to working-class students].”
“Like, how many Scousers, particularly from the poorer parts of the city where I live go to Liverpool and not John Moores? Whenever I get on a bus to uni from mine in North Liverpool it’s all green lanyards.”
“Having said that, I got here via Go Higher and that usually is the uni themselves producing local, mature, less well off students to study here.”
Research suggests that middle-class students have better university outcomes than working-class students, even when their academic attainment is the same. Middle-class students are slightly more likely to graduate with first-class degrees; they also do far better in the graduate jobs’ market, even when graduating with the same degree and the same classification. This is hardly surprising: the entire university process is probably easier if your parents know what terms like ‘alumni’ and ‘academic referencing’ mean; if your pre-university social network can provide careers education where university support may be lacking. Moreover, seeing as non-comprehensive schools tend to have better sport and other extracurricular provisions, it would make sense if university sports teams, society committees and student media were dominated by middle-class students, in comparison to the wider student body. This is important for two reasons: firstly, students who are active in extracurricular campus activities gain skills important for employability. More importantly, though, they also invariably become our elected representatives.
It’s far from impossible to imagine a future SO team that is all-middle-class, just as the current team is all-male. The difference is that class is often a silent marker, something uncomfortable and rarely pointed out; without proper efforts to account for it, student representation that lacks any insight from the economically disadvantaged might go completely under the radar. It might be argued that it would be inappropriate to account for class in Guild representation because “working class” is so hard to define; I would argue that this is precisely why talking about class is so important.
Surprisingly little data exists relating to social class at university – the university’s Equalities and Diversity Officer was able to tell me surprisingly little on the topic because, as he correctly pointed out, “class or socioeconomic background are not equality groups under equality law”. There is no great conspiracy relating to class data specifically – a Freedom of Information request submitted by The Sphinx earlier this year produced a similarly unimpressive response, when we asked about the number of black professors employed by the university – and were given misleading data relating to BAME staff as a whole. Arguably, more needs to be done to improve diversity in academic institutions on the whole, and this begins by talking about the full range of representational needs.
There are innumerable ways in which social class might impact a person’s academic career, from a basic lack of funds to more subtle cultural markers ingrained in the education system, to outright discrimination. Subjects with a low number of contact hours will undoubtedly leave working-class students at a disadvantage; when contact hours are limited to five or six hours per week, students must fall back heavily on their pre-university education, which in the UK varies heavily by socioeconomic background. Students from poorer backgrounds might suffer from mental health problems more readily because of a lack of funds: having a bank balance hitting the danger zone is a more grim reality if your parents could never bail you out. Working-class students might enter Higher Education later and face related challenges with social integration; they might be carers for family members or children; they are more likely to drop out of university in the first year.
If anything, the relatively high proportion of working-class students at Liverpool suggests a higher proportion of students need their interests represented to the university. This is important not just for working-class students, but for the quality of higher education itself. We are at a time where the structure of university education has changed very quickly. The expansion of universities like Liverpool is directly funded by the loans of working-class students: a new cohort of young people whose parents did not have access to university. If these students find the education and opportunities provided aren’t working for them, they’ll simply stop applying. It makes sense for academic institutions to find effective ways to listen to the changing student demographic.
The reasons why liberation structures rarely account for social class may be obvious: as a group not protected by Equality Legislation, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may not seem like the obvious benefactors of what is essentially anti-discrimination work. However, class-based discrimination does occur: we are more likely to judge speakers of Received Pronunciation as more intelligent than those who speak with regional accents. Since some subjects still have marking systems wrought with a lack of anonymity, this is extremely relevant.
Specific initiatives like the Liverpool Bursary already work well for levelling the playing field on a base, economic level. But perhaps more could be done to address the broad range of ways poorer students get less bang for their buck. With 2017 witnessing the circulation of fresh research showing that white, working-class boys are the demographic least likely to attend university, surely the stubborn link between class and Higher Education outcomes has never been clearer. It seems appropriate to work towards acknowledging this in the mechanics of how our union represents student needs to the university.