Class still matters. Several academics I know begin the first lecture of new courses in history or sociology by asking their first-year undergraduates whether they believe they live in a classless society. “Of course we do,” is the answer they most often get back. Their students believe they live in a meritocracy, where they’ve reached their position through hard work alone. Most of the people they know have also got to university – universities just like the ones they attend themselves – and they and their friends are set on a similar trajectory into the professions once they graduate.
Not so. The facts of social class do matter, as many of those students begin to realise as they are exposed to, and then learn to interrogate, those facts. Professor Diane Reay and other researchers into class and education have noted that in the UK both working-class and middle-class students “tend to choose a university with which they feel comfortable, where there are ‘people like us’”.
The latter group are more likely to choose old universities and the former new ones. This has the effect of entrenching the existing advantages of middle-class students, who are more likely to choose established universities, and limiting the potential advantages of working-class students who have had to work harder, against greater odds, to get into any university at all.
Upon graduation, a class ceiling operates in which those who have attended a certain elite band of universities – such as Oxford, Cambridge and King’s College London – are far more likely to earn more and to rise quicker through the professional ranks than those who have been to Russell Group universities (such as Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Newcastle). In turn, those who went to new post-1992 universities fare the least well, relatively speaking.
Higher education is just one area in which it is easy to overlook continued inequalities in people’s experiences and expectations. Throughout the education system, children from middle-class backgrounds do better at school, both bluntly in terms of GCSE and A-level grades, but also in terms of the enrichment activities provided at the schools they attend, all of which count towards the building of social and cultural capital.
Social connections and cultural knowledge can be amassed like wealth, and in a class-divided society such as ours, can be used in much the same way: hoarded by those who are best placed to “earn” more of it. Both the mass media and social media prioritise the voices of the better-off: not just the super-rich but the averagely privileged. This has the effect of reducing social diversity in public debate and policy-making, and in its turn allowing people to believe that “we’re all middle-class now”.
We’re not: as the results of the recent Great British Class Survey showed us, British society is still deeply divided by class, adversely affecting the confidence and prospects of people who know from harsh experience that meritocracy is still a fantasy.
Main image: Lynsey Hanley (when aged 15) taken from her book Respectable: The Experience of Class published by Allen Lane (£16.99)
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