higher ed

The Barnaby Principle

British Youth Culture - Mods & Rockers 1960s - 1970s

There is often discussion about getting more working class (or at least not very middle class) pupils into university, including debates about lower entry level requirements for state school pupils, first in family scholarships, and the intention (whether you agree it worked or not) by TEF to consider POLAR and widening participation agendas. It’s not always easy being a first generation/working class student, particularly at elite universities, but there does seem to be some recognition that they represent a group who may need more support or encouragement (this is particularly problematic in areas such as medicine, which are pretty much a closed club for the privileged). The assumption seems to be though that once you’ve been through the university system, we’re all equal then (or all equally middle class).

I had a couple of experiences in the past year which reminded me that this is not so. As I’ve mentioned before, I was first generation to uni, comprehensive school educated, via Hatfield and Teesside Polys. And even now, as a senior (hey, who are you calling senior?) academic, the imposter stuff still lingers. Even at a famously egalitarian institute such as the Open University, when I first joined I was aware I hadn’t been to grammar school, not attended a Russell Group university and had somewhat oikish tastes (sport, lager, horror movies, indie music), although I feel this has altered a lot over the intervening twenty odd years (and I’ve become more middle class, I drink wine now and like art now and everything). But this stuff hangs around, your frame of reference can still feel wrong. Take this recent scene – I am out at a meal with academics from other universities, and they are ALL discussing their favourite regattas. So, not only should I have been to a regatta (I mean WTF even is a regatta?), but I need to have been to enough of them that I have a favourite one?

I want to stress that I don’t think that class diversity is more important than other perspectives on diversity, and indeed diversity agendas are not in competition with each other. I think once you adopt a diversity attitude it benefits all. But with social mobility pretty much ground to a halt in the UK, and higher education often promoted as a solution (although the stats are questionable), then I would suggest that having more staff, particularly at a senior management level that demonstrate that principle and understand the needs of working class students is something universities should seek to promote.

I’m not convinced this needs a quota system, and I think other diversity agendas have priority, but it would be interesting to see what proportion of university senior management come from working class/first generation students/post 92 university backgrounds. Until we have such data I offer the following metric: I was in another inter-university meeting not long ago, and there were two men named Barnaby in attendance. I would suggest that if you have more than one Barnaby present then you probably want to look at the class representation.


  • Alan Levine

    I think you have earned a new nickname, but I’m not sure if it is “Barnaby” Weller or “Regatta” Weller… I’ve yet to even meet a first Barnsby beyond the TV character Barnaby Jones.

    I’m surprised that economic classist has a presence in unis surely it can’t last; I’d guess in the US you had find that among the Ivy’s (e.g. the recent story on Harvard’s student demographics)

  • Michael Berman

    The regatta story cracked me up. As an undergraduate I spent some time in Oxford and it was very funny to me to see people trying to discern my class status. At the time they found Americans terribly confusing because, unlike Brits, they couldn’t pigeonhole you by you accent. It actually seemed to make some people uncomfortable.

    • mweller

      I think Americans confuse posh people – they are simultaneously delighted by them and find them brash. It’s a PG Wodehouse hangover

  • Mark Curcher

    Hi Martin

    I think that I have mentioned before our similar profile (first in family to HE, secondary modern school, Bristol Poly) and so I do relate to this post quite strongly.
    With regard to the regatta story, I have a similar one from my career before education, when I worked in banking in the 1980s. I had left Barclays and been recruited by Coutts because they were so desperate for qualified bankers (yep, to my embarrassment I meet that profile) and so they had to recruit from the ‘other ranks’ or banks. Anyway – I was asked my view about an upcoming polo match, of which I knew nothing. In my case I am sure it was deliberate as my accent betrayed my class and upbringing.
    My Finnish colleagues cannot really relate to these stories at all, you will be not be surprised to hear.
    So anyway, I do hope that you asked them their views on their favourite ice hockey team.
    As ever, thanks for the post Martin.

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