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Institutional barriers hold back working class staff in colleges & universities, report shows

29 September 2022

Three in five working class staff in post-16 education say their class is a barrier to career progression.

The finding is from a UCU report [430kb], which shows that working class employees in universities and colleges experience class based discrimination.

The report, 'the impact of social class on experiences of working in post-16 education', is based on a survey of around 4,000 (3,987) UCU members working in adult, further, higher and prison education. Around half (49%) of respondents described their background as working class, slightly lower than the 60% average across Britain.

The report shows that a majority of working class staff in post 16 education believe that their class is a barrier to recruitment, career progression and networking opportunities. They also say that it effects how included they feel at work. Staff with protected characteristics including those who are disabled, Black, women, non-binary, and/or LGBTQ+ were more likely to say that being working-class is a barrier, suggesting an intersectional nature of discrimination.

In addition to concerns about the impact of class on their own working experiences, respondents also raised concerns about the ability of students from working class backgrounds to forge a career in the sector. The high costs of studying to work in post-16 education combined with low pay, job precarity and casualisation were all cited as barriers to those from working class communities.

Key findings include:

  • over half (54.2%) of respondents from a working-class background agree that working class staff face barriers in relation to recruitment at their institution. Two in five (41.9%) respondents from a non-working-class background agree
  • over half (52.6%) of respondents overall, and three in five (61.1%) respondents from a working class background agree that a working-class background presents a barrier to career progression at their institution
  • just over half (50.5%) of respondents agree or strongly agree that a working-class background presents a barrier to feeling included
  • nearly six in 10 (58%) respondents from a working-class background agreed that working class staff face barriers in relation to networking opportunities at their institution compared with just over four in 10 (44.2%) respondents from a non-working class background
  • overall, almost a third (32.8%) of respondents agree or agree strongly that they have been disadvantaged or discriminated against in their career due to their accent. Just over four in 10 (40.8%) respondents from a working class background agree
  • non-working-class staff are more likely to disagree with the existence of barriers faced by working-class staff.

Comments from respondents:

'Fixed-term contracts and short-term research awards seem to assume that the recipient has a 'safety net': the financial stability to move around, make ends meet between contracts, continue regular mortgage/rental payments whilst funded for travel expenses only. This model assumes that everyone has parents/a partner able to support them; it is a model of academia as a genteel hobby, rather than a living.'

A woman working in higher education

'For the level of experience and qualification required, further education is now a low paid vocation, requiring staff to do additional hours at home marking and preparing lessons without pay. To what extent is this now a barrier to the employment and retention of people who are the main breadwinner or need a decent income as they may not have assets or private income to fall back on?'

A working-class man working in further education

'The college has a high proportion of teaching staff that are working class, however they do not seem to progress into the higher roles.'

A working-class woman working in further education


The report says employers must take action to help break down the barriers working class people face in post-16 education, starting by:

  • analysing institutional data to understand participation, progression and retention rates by social class at both staff and student level
  • conducting primary research to understand staff perceptions of the impact of class at institutional level
  • integrating analyses of social class in equality, diversity and inclusion work.

Teaching staff in colleges can earn as little as £21k and over half are employed on some form of insecure contract. Recently, eight in 10 college staff in England said they suffer from financial insecurity. English college staff are currently engaged in their biggest strike action ever - over low pay and the cost of living - after employer body the Association of Colleges recommended a pay award of just 2.5%

In universities, one third of academics are on some form of fixed term contract and pay has fallen by 25% in real terms over the past 12 years. On average, colleges and university staff work the equivalent of two extra days unpaid every week. Over 70k UCU members in higher education are currently being balloted over low pay, poor working conditions and pension cuts. The ballot closes on Friday 21 October. It is an aggregated national ballot which if successful will pave the way for the largest strike action ever to take place in higher education.

The student loan system means that university students graduate with a debt burden that can take decades to write off. The government has now extended the student loan system into further education via the 'lifelong loan entitlement'.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'This report lays bare the difficulties faced by working class staff in post-16 education who are being denied job opportunities and having their careers limited because of their background.  Employers that claim to care about inclusion and diversity need to start taking this seriously, listen to staff and put together comprehensive action plans.

'The report also shows that staff who are already at the greatest risk of being discriminated against, such as disabled, Black, LGBTQ+, non-binary and female staff are also more likely to face class based discrimination. By committing to ending class-based discrimination, employers will help improve the lives of the most marginalised staff.

'The findings of this report must also be considered alongside the financial barriers working-class staff in post 16 education already face including costs to study and the low pay and insecure employment practices that blight the entire post-16 education sector

'Likewise, the debt burden placed on students is now becoming so great that many will be deterred from entering higher and further education. The UK faces a real risk of moving backwards on social mobility and locking working class people out of post-16 education, both as students and staff.'

Last updated: 3 October 2022