Robert Frost’s poem is particularly apposite to the issue of class discrimination. Those of us from a rich and diverse range of working class heritages, and who are academics and professionals, have taken the less travelled path, which ‘has made all the difference’. The difference is both systematic and personal.

Successive governments in the United Kingdom have made social mobility, and not the prevention and prohibition of class discrimination, the well-travelled path. Preventing class discrimination returns autonomy to those who are working class, whereas many social mobility schemes have not been designed in full consultation with working class heritage people, nor are they often governed by a majority of working class people in the same way as are schemes promoting equal access for those with disabilities, or with ethnic minorities and women.

In addition, although many social mobility schemes have been of great value, because they are mostly private and charitable, they have no alternative but to cherry-pick beneficiaries. They cannot extend their schemes to everyone eligible in the entire country. Similarly, social mobility does not benefit those who are proud and happy living working class lives, but who do not wish to be stigmatised as lazy and feckless.  This stigma applies inter-generationally. In wanting to establish an organisation which could support, mentor, and improve conditions for working class heritage academics and students, some senior academics refused my request to join me, because they feared prejudice and did not wish publicly to identify their heritage. They also did not wish their parents to be stigmatised for living working class lives. Unfortunately, both fears have much foundation.

In the past five years, however, several new initiatives have been developed by academics from working class heritages, rather than relying upon initiatives which have not involved working class heritage people in significant leadership roles. These initiatives include books narrating the experiences of working class academics[1],  a web-based project on shared story-telling of working class heritage academics,  journal and chapter articles calling for class discrimination to be prohibited.

The establishment of the Alliance of Working Class Academics, including by brave younger working class scholars with much to lose, the drafting of the University Code on Equal Opportunity for Working Class Students and Academics 2021,  the establishment of a Journal on Class and Culture, and now a new Parliamentary Petition to prohibit intersectional class discrimination.

The Parliamentary Petition calls for the Equality Act to be amended to prohibit social class discrimination in the same way as it prohibits the other nine forms of unacceptable discrimination. It also calls for the prevention of class discrimination to be included within the mandate of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  The Petition has been shared by the Runnymede Trust, the Discrimination Lawyers Association, and the Fairness Foundation.

The petition is not a plea for an additional category of victimhood, nor is it an argument that class identity trumps other identities; rather, it is a considered response to the growing gaps in income and wealth inequalities, in which intersectional class has either been invisible, intentionally ignored, or forgotten.

Included in the many advantages of banning class discrimination is, that a closure of a hospital which indirectly negatively impacts on poorer communities would be prohibited; interviewers would not be able to discriminate on the basis of class accents, and data on homelessness, schooling and on the class pay gap could be gathered nationally.

Nor is the Petition about exclusionary, historical images of class: male and Caucasian. Class is a richly inclusive identity which has the capacity to unite, rather than to intensify the so-called ‘culture wars’.  As bell hooks, the African-American scholar wrote, ‘Nowadays it is fashionable to talk about race or gender’, but ‘[t]he uncool subject is class. It’s the subject that makes us all tense, nervous, uncertain about where we stand’. Such tension has made us underestimate class, to the detriment of the increasing many struggling with poverty.

The Parliamentary Petition Banning Class Discrimination is still open for signature and 10,000 signatures will lead to a government response.

These changes may involve some soul searching. Working class heritage postgraduate students and academic staff almost uniformly express the challenges they face when submitting grant applications in seeking to research class and social mobility. It is a subject which they know in depth and yet, as perhaps an analysis of the history of grant applications from the Social Mobility Commission to academic funding bodies might reveal, a significantly smaller number of grants are being awarded to those with less resources.  It is not a question of excluding anyone, but it is a question of sharing, which is a basis of anti-discrimination law and equality policies.

[1] Carole Binns, Experiences of Academics from a Working-Class Heritage; Iona Burnell Reilly ed., The Lives of Working Class Academics – Getting Ideas Above Your Station

© 2023 Professor Emerita Geraldine Van Bueren is a Visiting Fellow of Kellogg College Oxford, chair of the international Alliance of Working Class Academics and a former commissioner on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. She is grateful to the Leverhulme Foundation for its generous grant for her work on social mobility, class and the law enabling her to write Class and Law (Hart forthcoming).