Academia and the other diversity issue

There’s been even more fuss that usual lately over the women in academia issue. I imagine on the science front this video has something to do with it. I’m not even going to go there…

What you take as the second diversity issue is probably dependent on who and where you are in the world; perhaps it’s underepresentation of LTGB groups, racism, sexism, nepotism…but I imagine all of these (and more) are problems in many areas of work. Academia, I’ve been thinking lately, has a massive class problem.

I’m not here to discuss barriers that exist whilst doing, or even before doing a degree. I’m sure they do. I’m sure there’s a million and one little advantages you get depending on where you come from in life that help you out the moment you start school, whatever subjects you end up doing. I think a large problem with the academic class issue is what comes next. Firstly, funding to masters courses has been almost completely removed in some areas. In the same way that degrees were once promoted to give people the edge in the job market now, at a time when everyone has graduated, people are being pushed towards undertaking an MA or MSc (UEA’s ‘Fancy Another?’ beer mat marketing strategy seems to suggest the main reason for doing a MSc should be staying to party at UEA one more year. I guess they need the money). I certainly couldn’t have afforded to do a masters unfunded, and whilst you could go straight into a PhD from an undergraduate degree, as I did, I don’t necessarily recommend it.

The next, and major barrier, is the PhD itself. I hadn’t really thought about it much until the other day when someone asked me why I was in such a rush to find a job as soon as my PhD funding finished. That’s when I realised I don’t know too many people in PhD world who aren’t supported by someone; parents, grandparents, partner. In some instances this isn’t anyone’s fault – if you come to a PhD later in life you probably will take a pay cut and still need to pay the mortgage, car insurance and bills. But for many people it’s a safety blanket allowing them to go beyond 3 years of funding. And when most PhDs do slip beyond this time point, what do you do if you don’t have that safety net? It’s smaller things as well, conferences in exotic locations, fieldwork, other trips – even if you can claim reimbursement quite often you need to spend out in advance for these things. I’m lucky that I pay really low rent, but I imagine if I was using my PhD stipend to support myself and a family I wouldn’t be able to shell out £500 for a flight and wait the inordinately long time it takes our finance people to refund the money.

I read an article recently, an interview with a British actor I can only imagine was in Corrie or Downton Abbey or something similar, who made the point that there’s rather a large influx of old Etonian types in British acting right now. Perhaps that’s the style of show that’s in favour (Sherlock Holmes, period dramas etc.). But perhaps, he said, it’s because no one earns anything when they start out as an actor and so only people with monetary support can make it. It’s the same in academia, you have to be monetarily secure to undertake a PhD (especially in subjects with less funding such as humanities and arts).

Why is this a problem? Diversity is always a problem. If you don’t have a full spectrum you don’t have a full range of ideas, opinions, inspirations. Who knows what you might miss? I can imagine it can also cause tension and resentment amongst the few people who do make it through from more disadvantaged backgrounds. I’ve experienced what can only be described as bullying from one co-worker purely because of who she (incorrectly) thinks I am and what that gave me in life.

In terms of science, we worked hard to move it past the days when it was a gentleman’s hobby. When only the well off who didn’t need to work could go out and collect fossils. Staid ideas can become stuck within certain groups, it took John Hunter to break the years of incorrect medical traditions and training of the upper classes in London. Let’s not, in an age of budget cuts and funding problems, return to a time when the privilege you get not earn give you a place in our academic system.

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