Overcoming Class Barriers in Cambridge

In June 2023 Dr David Clifford, Homerton College Associate Professor in English, ran a two-day symposium on the topic of, ‘Overcoming Class Barriers in Cambridge’.  David explained his motivation in organising the event:

“There are many academics at Cambridge with working-class backgrounds, but their origin stories are usually well concealed from students behind academic titles and a couple of decent pairs of shoes.  The relative invisibility of social background – and, to be frank, the residual undercurrent of shame it still seems to harbour – means that working-class academics and students often think they’re alone, when they’re in fact surrounded by others with similar stories”.

It is unnecessarily off-putting to applicants and students, says David.  “To arrive at Cambridge from working class and low-aspirational origins, under the impression that the undergraduate population is predominantly wealthy, privileged, entitled, and steeped in cultural capital, can be a daunting and lonely experience.”

“And I can only say the symposium exceeded my considerable expectations. The discussions arising from these panels were lively, enlightening, creative, and at times profoundly moving. I observed a real sense of positivity and belonging. Some real and tangible ideas emerged that merit further exploration and implementation, and I am sure more will come of these discussions beyond the recordings to be hosted by Homerton. There are students and academics, even if we are a minority, whose position at Cambridge deserves recognition and celebration. I am delighted with how it went.”

Participants across the seven panels were Professor Alison Young (the Sir David Williams Professor of Public Law), Professor Steve Russell (Dept of Genetics), Professor Ian James (Faculty of Modern & Medieval Languages and Linguistics), Professor Amy Milton, (Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience), Dr Mary Beth Benbenek (Centre for Teaching & Learning), Dr Alan Baker FBA (Emmanuel College), Dr Fraz Mir (Head of Postgraduate Medicine in the East of England), Dr Tobias Kohn (TU Vienna), and many Homertonians:  Dr Josie O’Donoghue (Director of Studies in English), Steve Watts (former Admissions Tutor), Bye-Fellow and alumna Éireann Attridge (Elephant Group), and alumni Myles Stacey OBE (Special Adviser at No 10 Downing Street), Pav Akhtar (Chief Diversity Officer in the NHS), and Jessica Wing (Disability rights adviser), Professor Jason Carroll (Professor of Molecular Oncology), Lily Howard (first-year undergraduate in English at Homerton), and Carys Myers (second-year undergraduate in HSPS and Access Officer at Pembroke College).

The themes of the seven panels were:

  • Before we knew we’d be academics, and problems that arose when we were
  • Working class women academics
  • Support for working class students at Cambridge
  • Attracting more working-class students to apply in the first place
  • Changing the culture of the University
  • Class barriers faced by ethnic minorities at Cambridge
  • “Why are we all changing our accents?”

For further details visit the College website.