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Are working-class students and academics avoiding top universities?

When it comes to university choices for both students and academics, it might seem like everyone wants to study and work in the institutions that top the league tables and the world rankings – but research seems to indicate this isn’t the case.

As part of the background analysis for my new book Experiences of Academics from a Working-Class Heritage, I spoke with a number of academics from a working-class background about their experiences of working in universities. These interviewees were all employed in an institution that acquired university status several decades ago – and where both a culture of teaching and research is important.

But my findings suggest that despite being qualified to apply for academic posts advertised at elite and Russell Group universities, just under 80% of interviewees chose to stay at their current institution. And this was mainly because they didn’t want to work at “elite” universities.

None of the people I spoke with cited reasons such as location or domestic and personal commitments as being obstacles to working elsewhere. Instead, they mentioned how much they enjoyed working with their fellow workers, and that they felt settled in their current institution.

And for some, their previous negative experiences of working or studying at an elite institution had deterred them from working somewhere like that in the future.


Read more: The gap between rich and poor students going to university has reached record levels


The social mobility issue

The fact that so many of the people I spoke with said they have chosen to work at, or to stay in, institutions that they perceive to be less elitist – and where they feel more at home – is particularly significant given that all of the interviewees identified themselves as being from a working-class heritage.

They were all employed either as a professors, readers, senior lecturers or lecturers. Some had junior roles, others had over 30 years experience. But all had experienced social mobility in terms of moving away from elements of their social class origins. They had been educated to doctoral level (just one interviewee didn’t possess a PhD) and they were employed in a middle-class profession – so had achieved “social mobility”.

Significant numbers of working-class children choose to avoid ‘elite’ institutions – despite having the grades needed to get in. Shutterstock

The concept of social mobility relates to the migration of people in an upward or downward social trajectory. This can be facilitated by the accumulation of at least one of several variables, including levels of education, occupation, or financial wealth. So someone who might be the first in their family to go to university, and is later employed in a middle class profession, has socially mobilised in terms of their education and employment prospects.

A large proportion of the people I interviewed had published very widely, and over many years, and a few had been in the receipt of six figure research grants – bringing research income into your home institution is not an easy task and is very often a reflection of one’s expertise and experience in the field. And yet rather than work at a more elite institution – and socially mobilise further by working at more prestigious universities – these qualified interviewees instead chose to stay where they were.

Same pattern with students

It could be easy to wonder what the issue is here. There is of course, nothing wrong with working in your comfort zone. If you are a productive achiever, then your university, colleagues and student cohorts will be beneficiaries of your success. And of course, this phenomenon is not uniquely peculiar to academics from a working-class heritage. I know of other scholars who also have no plans to move on from their current employer.

But on the flip side, it seems that this phenomenon is not unique to just academics. Some students, for example, are also choosing to attend universities where they feel more comfortable, rather than aiming for the those that are at the top of the league tables.

Academics from working-class backgrounds would rather stay put then work in an ‘elitist’ institution. Shutterstock

Of course, there can be many reasons why students make the choices that they do. These include geographical location and the proximity to their parents and friends. But a report published by the Sutton Trust reveals that the social class of a student might be linked to whether or not they apply and eventually study at a Russell Group university. This is regardless of academic ability and previous attainment.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency has previously reported reductions in the numbers of students from poorer backgrounds studying at a selective university. This is particularly concerning given that the poorest school-leavers are already less likely to attend university than their peers.


Read more: Bright, poor students less likely to get into elite universities


Not just the best

It’s important that elite institutions don’t increasingly become places for the middle classes. And with this in mind, many universities are already reviewing their admissions policies to accommodate more students from different backgrounds – all of which is positive.

But it is also equally important that other universities are not seen to be the poorer cousins in terms of what they can offer prospective students. Because as my findings show, the best academics (in any field) are not always to be found at Russell Group and other elite universities.

So when it comes to university choices, rather than concentrating on admissions trends alone, students would also benefit from interrogating institutional staff lists and biographies before choosing where to study.