We need to talk about money: what the cost-of-living crisis means for working-class classicists

In recent months, news headlines have increasingly focused on the experiences of those affected by the cost-of-living crisis and university students (and, in many cases, staff) are no exception. In July 2022, a survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) found that 11% of students and apprentices have sought support from food banks, with 42% cutting back on heating and transport in order to reduce expenditure. Amongst research postgraduates, the University of East Anglia came under fire after indicating that its PhD stipends were now insufficient and circulating suggestions for supplementary employment, such as retail work and participating in clinical trials. Although the UK government and many individual universities have since increased the value of stipends, students without grants or familial wealth remain vulnerable to spiralling living costs. Yet, for many working-class students, these are not new experiences. Even before the pandemic was identified as a ‘financial tipping point’ for many doctoral students, numerous studies (2001, 2006, 2018) demonstrated that financial pressures are a leading cause of PhD incompletion. 

And it’s not just students who are affected. The University and College Union (UCU) has highlighted that the employers’ imposition in August of a 3% pay ‘increase’ on university staff, well below RPI inflation of 12.3%, represents in fact a pay cut – not a rise! Real pay for staff has now fallen behind inflation by 25% since 2009. All staff are affected by these cuts, but those who are amongst the third of academic staff on some form of insecure contract are particularly vulnerable and may have no choice but to leave the profession altogether. Already seven years ago, in 2015, a UK-wide survey found that 42% of staff on casual contracts in universities and colleges struggled to pay household bills and 21% found it difficult to pay for food. Things have now gotten considerably worse. Staff at universities around the UK are preparing for strike action over the winter to challenge this untenable situation.

Within our own discipline, surveys by CUCD UK already revealed in 2017 and 2019 that some early-career classicists were being forced to leave academia due to economic hardship. Working-class experiences of classics do not centre solely on financial exclusion: at our networking events, we have heard stories about imposter syndrome, toning down accents, and struggling to ‘catch-up’ with ancient languages. We have been working (in partnership with the CUCD EDI Committee) on a survey on Class in Classics that will capture these experiences and allow us to make recommendations to the sector that will inspire and create long-term change – the survey will be launched soon.

But money matters, and the cost-of-living crisis means that we need to take action on financial inequality now. Across the UK, there are classicists in every department who will face insurmountable economic challenges in the months ahead. These challenges will be especially acute for those who are working-class, whether they are directly experiencing economic hardship themselves or indirectly by supporting family and friends. Just as experiences of the pandemic were unequal, so too will some people be affected more than others by this economic crisis. And as we did in the pandemic, our community should build solidarity and take collective action where we can.

We are therefore calling on classics departments across the UK to implement the following recommendations: 

  1. Make the cost-of-living crisis a standing item for discussion at departmental, school, and/or faculty meetings and explore mechanisms that enable potentially sensitive comments to be shared anonymously. One starting point could be to table for discussion the Student Cost of Living Report published in September 2022 by the National Union of Students.
  1. If your department and/or university has a ‘hardship fund’, rename it. ‘Hardship’ can be a stigmatising term and it can also deter potential applicants if they believe they are not experiencing sufficient hardship. Consider borrowing phrasing from Sportula Europe (‘microgrants’) or the Women’s Classical Committee (‘small grants’). Similarly, revise policies that require applicants to demonstrate extreme poverty and/or exhaustion of commercial credit schemes before being considered for funding. 
  1. Remove financial barriers to participation in wider departmental life by offering no- or low-cost activities and events like research seminars or student social inductions. Consider using departmental spaces where food and drink can be shared socially, rather than defaulting to external venues that necessitate a certain level of expenditure. 
  1. Provide or maintain access to appropriate workspaces and computing equipment, or put processes in place to mitigate the impact if such resources are withdrawn for extended periods (e.g. extensions for student assessments and staff feedback in the event of extended campus closures over winter) or suddenly fail (e.g. bursaries, interest-free loans, or laptop loans for students and casualised staff in the event of computer failure). 
  1. Where possible, offer hybrid meetings and events to allow participants the choice of attending remotely or in-person. For some, remote attendance will allow them to save on travel costs; and, for others, in-person attendance can reduce at-home energy costs. 
  1. Ensure that casualised employment contracts offered by your department (e.g. teaching provided by postgraduates or casualised staff, open-day assistance provided by students) accurately reflect the hours needed to complete the work. For instance, include pay for time to attend mandatory training or to complete administrative tasks, such as recording student grades or preparing presentation materials. Recognise that any time devoted to this work prevents the employee from undertaking other employment, so they should be remunerated fairly. 
  1. Recognise the many impacts of the cost-of-living crisis on academic attainment and career progression for students and staff, and develop processes to alleviate them in both the short- and long-term. This should include recognising the need to undertake additional employment as a valid reason for extending student assessment deadlines and accepting gaps in academic employment history. 
  1. Engage with the research and recommendations of the main unions for university staff (UCU) and students (NUS), whether you are a member or not. If you are not a member, consider joining UCU in order to leverage better pay and conditions for all staff.