Proud of Us


It’s a funny thing that as long as I have worked in widening participation, as many different ways we have come up with to categorise socio-economic class for students, universities lag way behind in understanding the same make up of their staff.  Since I have been at the University of Southampton I have had the chance to consider this through the Social Mobility Network, a group for students and staff from working class backgrounds that was set up by my colleague Savanna Cutts when she was a Student Union sabbatical officer. In the two years since the Network has been active we have been fortunate to build a motivated Action Team who have set up varied channels for starting and maintaining conversations.

The Class Ceiling podcast has produced ten episodes covering a range of subjects and hosting expert guests. We were fortunate to have Dr Rebecca Montecute of the Sutton Trust discuss her research into accent bias, and the UK’s first professor of social mobility Lee Elliot-Major on the show. The podcast has been notable for provoking discussion about class issues around the University in spaces outside of widening participation or EDI, which indicates a wider cultural engagement. In parallel the Action Team have devised and delivered events to support and disseminate. The Network host regular social sessions for staff and students to connect and share as well as more high profile occasions. We ran a festival to celebrate Social Mobility Awareness Day last June. This culminated in Top of the Class, a conference to talk about class. We were lucky to be joined by Kieran Barry and Jordan Elliott, student union representatives from Warwick and Imperial; Anne-Marie Canning, CEO of the Brilliant Club and Justine Greening former Secretary of State for Education and Chair of the Purpose Coalition. We were able to announce at the conference that we will begin to collect data on socio-economic class for new staff, making us one of the first universities in the UK to do so.  There is a live podcast episode from the conference if you want to get a flavour of what went on. Most recently we have been concerned with visibility of working-class staff, students and alumni at the University and we curated a photography exhibition at the John Hansard Gallery in November. The exhibition was hugely popular and attracted over 6,000 visitors in its three-month run and was picked up for articles in wider discussions about social mobility.   

In the two years the Network has been running we have learnt a few things. Firstly, momentum can be channelled to make noise and push things forward. From very small beginnings the Network now has 200 members, has delivered all that activity, achieved two Highly Commended and Golds for University of the Year at the Social Mobility UK Awards and influenced policy. Secondly, creating spaces for people to connect and support each other is powerful. It’s a sad fact of life that our country is still rigidly classified. Acknowledging this, challenging it and providing networks works. One of the important things to recognise is the intersection with class and other protected characteristics, and working with other staff networks has highlighted specific issues that need to be addressed. Finally, we learned that we don’t know a lot. As I mentioned at the top, higher education is far behind the corporate sector in acknowledging socio-economic barriers as a problem for both individual opportunities and organisational achievement. Many companies now routinely collect data on their staff on socio-economic background to understand gaps in hierarchy and pay. Universities to not, so even though we know there is a national class pay gap, we have no way of knowing how this affects higher education.

To illustrate the importance of this work, I’ll bring in a colleague from a working-class background that does not work in widening participation or EDI. When I asked her what she thought of our conference she said “it made me proud of us”.

If you are interested in setting up a social mobility network or similar, please get in touch:


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