Britain is still a caste-ridden society, especially in higher education
British higher education has been hijacked by the middle-class. Since tuition fees were raised in 2012 our universities have become ever more elitist. Working class mature students — as I was, when I first attended university — are increasingly absent. Higher education badly misses their life experience and creativity, especially in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
I came to university as one of those mature, working-class students. In 2001, straight from Access course, I arrived at the University of Nottingham. At the time I was one of the few local undergraduates and one of the only mothers — still experiences that are fairly unique in the Russell Group. My course was free to me at the time because I was on low wages. It would now cost over £3000.
My first year was very difficult. The language, the system, and the other students were far away from anything I had encountered before. It never became any easier — but I did begin to learn. Isn’t that the whole point of education? I started to understand my class position, and inequality, in a new way.
In my second year I was introduced to the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu. He was a giant of a sociologist, who thought and wrote in a complex language. Bourdieu spent his life untangling how social class works within a capitalist society and especially how ‘taste’ and cultural distinctions play out amongst classes.
His work explains how we are judged and valued — not only by how much wealth we have, but, more importantly, the ways working-class people are devalued through their cultural tastes. What music they listen to, what they watch on television, how they dress and how they speak and their accents — Bourdieu opened the debate about how culture plays a part in hidden class ‘natural’ distinctions. Many working-class scholars have read Bourdieu and instinctively grasped his arguments. For almost 20 years his work has been crucial in understanding the hidden injuries of class.
Britain is a far from classless society. Accent discrimination is an indestructible part of our social intercourse, according to a study released this week by the British Academy.There is widespread evidence, according to reports, that working-class students are mocked for their accents at the UK’s top universities. My own experiences at Nottingham were far from unique, and that was almost 20 years ago. The situation has only become worse since then.
The British Left’s response to all this has been pathetic. Recall public-school educated Tribune columnist Grace Blakeley’s attempts to redefine class last year: “No matter what your accent or education, if you’re forced to work in a call centre, you’re working-class.” A fairly jaw-dropping thing to hear if you’re working-class.
My question is — why are the middle class, especially those who see themselves on the Left, so desperate to change the terms of the class debate? In other words, why would the middle class want their privileged positions to be out of sight? Leftists like Blakeley desperately want to show class has changed, even as Britain’s peculiar fetish for it remains alive and kicking in our universities. If they read Bourdieu they would at least have some self-awareness. They would understand that far from reclassifying class, they are attempting to make their own privileges appear natural.