Working Class in STEM

As a working class woman about to embark on a PhD in Particle Physics, I have witnessed first hand the problems of representation and diversity in STEM education and it is a problem that needs to be acknowledged and challenged, not just for the societal benefits, but for the benefit of science and technology as a whole. I have been lucky enough to be part of a Russell Group university where I have never felt disadvantaged or undervalued.  Unfortunately, this was not the case when visiting other higher Russell Group Universities. Many people have written about the gender gap and the lack of BAME representation in STEM, but far fewer talk about the class divide when, in fact, these issues are intersectional. If we break down the barriers of class, we will simultaneously go a long way to improving gender and racial discrepancies.

According to recent analysis, by the Department of Education and the National Office of Statistics, the intake of working class students to Russell Group universities has stalled over the last decade, and, in the case of some universities, these figures have gone backwards. The analysis looked at the proportion of students from socio-economic classification groups 4-7 (coming from families from traditionally “working class” occupations) and compared the 2015/16 cohort with that of ten years prior. The analysis found that while the number of poorer students going to university has increased on the whole, within the Russell Group, that increase is only minimal. 20.8% compared with 19.5% a decade ago. Seven of the 24 Russell Group institutions have seen this number decrease in the last 10 years. A decade ago, the University of Oxford admitted roughly one in eight students from poorer backgrounds; in 15/16 that had become 1 in 10, the lowest of all the institutions.

[https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/participation-rates-in-higher-education-2006-to-2016 accessed: 14/09/2018]

We all understand the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths and in recent years there has been a big push from government and industry to fill the nations skill gap, but the class divide is causing a wealth of potential talent to fall away and this is not only damaging industry it is also damaging academia and research. Scientific research is in danger of becoming a bubble of white, privileged middle class viewpoints. Women, working class and BAME students bring with them alternative life experiences and alternative points of view that will make science and technology the richer. It is in everyone’s interest to see these figures improve.

The problem of the class divide in STEM is much wider than just a problem of university intake, but I believe that universities can be the catalyst to change. It is important to see improvements in both statistics and culture. I believe there are advantages to the radical move of caps on independent school admissions; we need to do away with an education system that lets you pay for entry into the top universities. The achievements of the working class in the history of STEM need to be highlighted and championed. We need to see larger numbers of working class academics working at the country’s top universities and those academics should feel they are able to embrace their background and lead the fight for change. Universities need to embrace working class culture and the potential value it has to offer and working class students need to feel valued within the university community. University management should no longer be able to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the great class divide.

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