I don’t think I’ve ever felt less comfortable in who I am than when I arrived at University on my first day. My parents drove me down, my ears still ringing with my Grandad’s pride and praise, pack of fags and a bottle hidden in my rucksack and cramming the last bits of the pre-course reading in between marveling at how flat England is when you come from the Peak District. I was off to live in the South, and I was off to Cambridge.
It didn’t take me long to work out that I wasn’t the only working class northerner in my college, there were two of us. Even less time to work out that life was going to be pretty different – formal dinners, literally learning to pass the port and, eventually, changing my accent when told that “no one would take me seriously” in academia with what I’d always assumed was a fairly middle class version of a North Derbyshire voice.
I started doing work in WP at Uni because I learned that I was considered a success story for access. Me – couldn’t believe it then, still can’t believe it now thinking about it! Good school, worked hard, always reading and studying, supportive parents, POLAR quintile 4, the whole works. But I’d been a free school meals kid and I’d gone to a comprehensive, and that was enough in context. I started doing tours (paid in a beer or two), reassuring parents and prospective students that Cambridge wasn’t all posh, and that contrary to my own experience, no one faced discrimination for being northern or working class.
But I kept on in academia until I realized that all the tours and taster lectures and workshops and seminars I was running for young people was what I wanted to do – and so here I am, working in Widening Participation in London, with the endlessly awesome fact that I get to work with Primary school kids. I run exciting, engaging and (hopefully!) innovative programs for estate kids local to my Uni, talking about learning as exciting, Uni as a place full of weird and wonderful opportunities, as they tell me how Science, Arts, Maths, History and Music are integral parts of their lives and their dreams. They aren’t “hard to access” or “aspiration poor”. They live in the towers right next to the University. They know what they want – and Uni might be a part of that. They’re endlessly enthusiastic, challenging, honest, questioning and often absolutely hilarious. My job is to point out the door and kick over the barriers I can reach. They’ll go through if they fancy.
Over the last five years I’ve ended up becoming a bit of a fixture of our community – from awkwardly waving back to kids when I’m queuing in Sainsburys, being ambushed by parents when I’m on a smoke break or in the pub who want to know what we’re doing next, getting emails from teachers asking “on the off chance could you….” – and so what I do is inextricably bound up with who I am, and I love it. As I say all the time – it’s not a job, it’s a calling.
So why PURSUE? Because part of that calling is a demand that we change how HE operates. It’s unacceptable that anyone would feel uncomfortable with their lived experiences and identity at University. It’s unacceptable that the concept of the “academy” continues to prioritise a single way of being, that we look to change who our students are, rather than change how we operate.
The sector doesn’t do the hard work sometimes. We shy away from discussing class as if it were a powerful and dirty secret that is too “controversial” to address directly. As a sector we can sometimes hide in the familiar comfort of POLAR and ACORN, or picking and choosing AP+P targets, celebrating wins while describing certain communities as “hard to access” or “unengaged”. We pitch HE as transformative, so that nasty issues of class that might – shock horror – even have political implications – be erased by the paternalistic hand of middle-class biased HE systems. Our approach, our language, our methodology and even the way we think about our roles must be open and honest, engaging with class as a concept – and all that comes with it, from the micro to the macro scale. We are not going to “finish the job” of WP until equity is delivered, and we can’t do that without reconfiguring how we think and talk about, engage with, and accept class. That is what we’re going to do here, and I couldn’t do my job to the best of my ability without being part of it.