Skip to content
 

Blog post Part of series: BERA Conference 2023

Doing the heavy lifting: The experiences of working-class professional service and administrative staff in Russell Group universities

Jess Pilgrim-Brown, Research Associate at University of Bristol

Understanding what life is like for those studying and working within universities has been of increased interest to higher education research, policy and practice over the past 15 years. Recently, a heightened concern around experiences for the higher education workforce has been raised through a series of University and College Union (UCU) reports and strike action, and highlighted by BERA’s State of the Discipline initiative (UCU 2021; BERA 2023). As part of these phenomena, there has been an increased emphasis on the workloads, working conditions and a lack of representation and diversity in the higher education (HEI) workforce (Morris et al., 2023; Belluigi et al., 2023). This has been emphasised by the reporting of racism, classism and the difficulties of managing an academic career alongside high workloads and a multitude of exterior pressures, such as caring responsibilities (Morris et al., 2023; Universities UK, 2020). Research has sought to understand the lives of people from different backgrounds as they enter universities; students from working-class backgrounds have featured heavily in academic discourses, and recent reflections by Bhopal and Myers have begun to understand the intersectionality between ethnicity and social class background (Bhopal & Myers, 2023).

What has been lost so far in this myriad of brilliant research is the limitation that the experience of working and studying in universities in the UK is restricted to academics and students. Professional services staff are understood by their function, having absent voices within UK academic research (Whitchurch, 2010). Where their experiences are counted, they relate solely to professional identity (Caldwell, 2022). At BERA Conference 2023 I will present findings from my thesis research. It seeks to understand some of the experiences of working-class professional services staff in UK universities (explicitly, Russell Group). It argues that we cannot understand how culture, norms, behaviours and practices are experienced if we fail to include this key area of the workforce. The study finds that the dislocation between habitus and field which exists between working-class professional services staff and some Russell Group institutions creates an environment where staff are often subjected to poor behaviour from academics and face being ostracised and left out of the ‘game’. In these examples, participants spoke about not being able to interact with others due to the deferential language patterns used in academia, or the references made to things like classical antiquity, opera or fine art. This resulted in some participants feeling underappreciated and undervalued. Some in the study also reported feeling a sense of feeling ‘in between’ – that is, not fully integrated into their occupational setting – while simultaneously being ‘left out’ from life in their home environments. Often, on their career journeys, staff reported instances of microaggressions; classist, antagonistic behaviour; and being misjudged due to their accent, language or mannerisms.

‘The dislocation between habitus and field which exists between working-class professional services staff and some Russell Group institutions creates an environment where staff are often subjected to poor behaviour from academics and face being ostracised and left out of the “game”.’

The paper also explores how ‘working-class’ as an identity is defined in 2023; moving away from connotations of class being solely connected to profession and type of employment, being working class was defined by participants in relation to cultural taste, historic family background and poverty, in addition to the types of employment they, or others in their family, had had.

The experiences of other people in the higher education workforce are vital to how we understand the culture of UK institutions and should not be ignored. The study is (to my knowledge) the first of its kind to integrate social class identity and professional services work within UK higher education. It intends to be the first of many studies to further understand the experiences of professional services staff across UK universities.

Finally, while this study in itself is small in scale it has nevertheless reemphasised the following questions, which are worth considering with greater focus:

  • What future research can be done to understand how professional service staff across UK HEIs experience their working environments? How can we make these voices more visible?
  • How can institutions create better working environments for their professional services and administrative staff?
  • What do UK HEIs need to consider in order to move the widening participation agenda towards genuine inclusion?

‘Doing the heavy lifting: the experiences of working-class professional service and administrative staff in Russell Group universities’ will be presented at the 2023 BERA Conference, Wednesday 13 September, at 11am.


References

Belluigi, D. Z., Arday, J., & O’Keeffe, J. (2023). Education: The state of the discipline: An exploration of existing statistical data relating to staff equality in UK higher education. British Educational Research Association. https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/education-the-state-of-the-discipline-staff-equality

Bhopal, K., & Myers, M. (2023). Elite universities and the making of privilege: Exploring race and class in global educational economies. Routledge.

Caldwell, J. (2022). Professional identity and professional services staff: Understanding and impact. Perspectives: Policy and practice in Higher Education, 26(4), 140–147. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603108.2022.2073288

Crew, T. (2020). Higher education and working-class academics: Precarity and diversity in academia. Palgrave.

Morris, R., Perry, T., Smith, E., & Pilgrim-Brown, J. (2023). Education: The State of the Discipline. A survey of education researchers’ work, experiences and identities. British Educational Research Association. https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/education-the-state-of-the-discipline-survey-of-education-researchers

University and College Union [UCU]. (2021). Precarious work in higher education: Insecure contracts and how they have changed over time. https://www.ucu.org.uk/heprecarity

Universities UK. (2020). Tackling racial harassment in higher education. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/what-we-do/policy-and-research/publications/tackling-racial-harassment-higher

Whitchurch, C., & Law, P. (2010) Optimising the potential of third space professionals in UK higher education. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10023213/ 

More related content