Pandemic inequalities

Social distancing: a baby mammoth apart

by Lilah Grace Canevaro and Mirko Canevaro

The CUCD has recently published Pandemic Stories, a report based on a survey that ran from September 2021 to November 2022. The survey collected experiences of scholars of the ancient Mediterranean world (Classics and Ancient History) in the UK during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was aimed at classicists and ancient historians of all types, including students (especially postgraduates), academics, and schoolteachers, and collected a total of 268 responses.

The first section of the survey asked questions about the pandemic, while the second section collected demographic information. In terms of demographics, the survey attempted to capture (among other things) the class background of the respondents by asking for the occupation of the person who earned the most in their household before the respondent was 18. This puts a twist on the relevant question recommended by the Social Mobility Commission, which is rapidly becoming standard in such demographic questionnaires: that is, parental occupation when the respondent was 14. Presumably the change was made to refocus on university age, but the result is that the attempted alignment with wider other similar surveys and analyses is imperfect. Nevertheless, we can assume that the results should be roughly comparable with those of other surveys based on the standard questions recommended by the Social Mobility Commission, whose results are similarly transposed in the NS-SEC 3 (‘three-class version’) taxonomy. Thus, ‘working-class background’ includes those with parents whose occupations are defined as ‘routine and manual’; ‘professional of higher socio-economic background’ those with parents whose occupation is defined as ‘higher managerial, administrative and professional’ (other studies refer to this group simply as ‘Privileged’), whereas those whose parents had ‘intermediate occupations (as NS-SEC 3 describes) may be described as of ‘intermediate background’.[1]Cf. the recent report Getting in and getting on. Class, participation and job quality in the UK Creative Industries, Policy Review Series: Class in the Creative industries – Paper … Continue reading

The class data collected by the survey is worth reflecting on. It shows that 15% of respondents came from a working-class background, while 72% came from a professional or higher socio-economic background (i.e. ‘privileged’). 9% of respondents indicated that they either did not know, or found the question difficult to answer. These figures are of course not necessarily representative of the discipline: with just 268 responses, the numbers don’t permit such extrapolation and, further, the respondents are likely to come disproportionately from certain circumstances, simply because of the emphasis of the survey – the least vulnerable and most privileged tend to be underrepresented in such surveys exploring barriers, inequalities and discriminations. The report acknowledges that the demographic data doesn’t necessarily represent the composition of the discipline as a whole, but rather those to whom the survey ‘seems to have appealed’ most. Women seem to be overrepresented (70%), for instance, as is the 35-49 age bracket (this supposition results from comparison with the 2019-20 CUCD report on Race and Gender, in which more responses came from the 25-35 age group). What might we deduce from this survey about the over- or under-representation of working-class voices in Classics? And how does this compare with the representation of the those from a working-class background in the ‘higher managerial, administrative and professional’ occupations – to which academia belongs – more generally? And what about the overall workforce? Attempting to answer these questions can point to demographics in the discipline that need to come under scrutiny: demographics that soon willcome under scrutiny, through the Class in Classics survey.

Once again – as already with the data from the CUCD Race and Gender survey[2]For analysis of the socioeconomic data provided by this survey see our earlier blog post ‘If Class Were a Protected Characteristic‘. – this demographic data is worrying to say the least. The 15% of respondents from a working-class background compares with 29% in the overall workforce (according to the latest data of the Labour Force Survey). At the other end of the scale, the 72% of respondents from a ‘professional or higher socio-economic background’ compares with only 37% in the entire workforce. It also means that the few working-class kids that make it in find an environment entirely dominated by a different – professional or higher managerial – demographic, with an overall ethos and overall values, standards and expectations modelled on those of a very different social group, which is almost five times as numerous as their own. It should be pointed out that the socioeconomic data of the survey compare badly not only with those of the workforce as a whole, but even with those of other ‘elite’ occupations. Across professional and higher managerial occupations, the percentage of people from a working-class background is 21% (compared to 46% coming from a ‘privileged’ background). Thus, judging from the survey’s socioeconomic data, people from a working-class background are significantly less represented in Classics than in elite occupations in general (15% vs. 21%), and ‘privileged’ backgrounds significantly more overrepresented (72% vs. 46%). The recent Getting in and getting on. Class, participation and job quality in the UK Creative Industries report stressed that, with only 16% of people from a working-class background, the Creative Industries appear to be the most exclusionary of elite professions, noting that ‘those from privileged backgrounds are 2.5 times more likely to end up in creative occupations than their working-class peers’. The data from our survey is even worse than the available data for the Creative Industries, and shows that those from privileged backgrounds are in fact four times more likely to pursue an education and/or a career in Classics than their working-class peers.

A number of the experiences quoted in the report, themselves just a sample from the survey answers, resonated with the conversations we have been having as part of the Network for Working-Class Classicists:

“I was more affected in the beginning of the pandemic as I had an old computer. My computer didn’t have a web cam so I couldn’t really participate in zoom seminars, meetings, etc. As many of my family were also furloughed, I had to get extra jobs to help them with some money. Bizarrely, the pandemic has also led to an increase in me being racially profiled. I come from the Eastern Mediterranean, and I’ve noticed a rise in racism, especially as campuses (due to Brexit and rising international fees) have become less diverse places, and more homogenous white, middle class spaces.”  

“As everywhere in life, there have been extreme inequalities emerging during the pandemic. While some colleagues without caring responsibilities seemed to have more time for research than ever, those of us with kids to look after (not entertained by their private schools on zoom for substantial parts of the day) had to do far too much. Especially, as there was ZERO compensation / acknowledgement of this from our University. On the contrary, I had to work MORE for my students and tutees than ever before. Ironically, I spent a large amount of time helping students/tutees who felt disadvantaged by the pandemic – but who were, compared to me and others in my situation, in a position of extreme privilege (in terms of time for their work, at least).”  

These are experiences that point to a class divide. Though we don’t know the class background of these individual respondents, the arguments made and language used point to class as the elephant in the room. 

The first case shows the importance of an intersectional lens in these pandemic stories – a lens which we also need to apply when talking about class. As is recognised in the report, factors can compound each other: ‘it is clear that those who were impacted significantly were: those on precarious, teaching-only focused contracts; those who were early career; those whose research required them to travel or use archives; those with caring responsibilities; those with health issues (whether pre-existing or caused by Covid infection); and those with disabilities. It is also clear that those who fell into more than one of these categories felt the impacts of the pandemic more severely.’ Just so do multiple axes of inequality add up: ‘For the purposes of this survey, we are particularly interested in looking at the effects of the pandemic where they intersect with employment or student status, health conditions, age, and caring responsibilities. We recognise that other factors, also collated here, such as gender identity and expression, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, and class, are also likely to have played a collateral role in the diversity of experiences across respondents.’ 

The first respondent notes a rise in racism in the wake of Brexit and its impact on international student numbers. The change in racial demographics in UK universities has a class dimension, as the ‘rising international fees’ have less of an impact on students coming from the more moneyed classes (whether British or from overseas). Yet before noting the increase in racial profiling, this respondent draws our attention to the financial inequalities exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. Being disadvantaged in the new online working environment because of an old computer. Having to take on extra work to support family with financial struggles. These are class-based experiences that resonate with working-class academics. And the widening class divide is made explicit in the concluding observation that universities have become ‘more homogenous white, middle class spaces’. Race and class intersect in this statement, and the situation looks bleak on both counts.

The second response is emphatic in drawing our notice to the ‘extreme inequalities’ that emerged during the pandemic. Studies have shown the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on women’s research.[3]For the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women and girls overall, and not just in research, see this useful literature review. This respondent reflects on privilege in a number of telling ways, and the response gives a fine-grained analysis of inequalities even within caring responsibilities, one of the main challenges addressed in the report. Academics with childcare responsibilities were at a disadvantage during the pandemic – and specifically academics with children ‘not entertained by their private schools on zoom for substantial parts of the day’. A line is drawn here between state- and private-schooled children, a division that tracks class and suggests that the experience of working from home with school-age children was different for families from different classes. Further, the respondent comments on the students who were in a position of extreme privilege in comparison with academics with caring responsibilities, and particularly with academics whose financial resources are not unlimited, and who do not enjoy the advantages of private schooling and childcare for their children. The respondent specifies this privilege as being ‘in terms of time for their work, at least’, but this observation has wider resonance: it points to the wider problem of the experience of the working-class academic pitched in a difficult dynamic with the elite, privately educated student. 

These excerpts from the report and from the experiences gathered in it are selective but also, in a way, indicative. They raise issues of ethos and finances, inclusion and inequality. These are threads that we can follow throughout the report. Let’s take money as an example, especially as it’s something we need to talk about more in universities. Respondents indicated as examples of lack of support from their institution things like ‘Lack of recognition of space or conditions when working from home’, ‘Lack of extra funding to accompany PhD extensions’, ‘No extra support with home bills or books’, ‘No equipment provided to work from home’. The negative measures taken by universities during the pandemic (budget cuts, hiring freeze, promotion freeze, salary freeze, not renewing contracts, cancellation of scholarships and funding) almost all involve less money getting to their staff, and the positive measures are those that offer financial support (such as extra resources for home working). Note that the highest proportion of respondents acknowledging any of these positive measures is 48%, whereas some of the negative measures are recognised by as many as 78% of respondents. 

Fine-grained inequalities emerge throughout the report. For instance, ‘The comments… highlight more general trends of unequal conditions among UK institutions, but the comments also note unequal conditions among people with different types of contracts, or between funded and unfunded PhD students.’ Casualisation and lack of funding are pervasive issues, of course, but conversations within the Network for Working-Class Classicists have also made clear that they affect disproportionately working-class academics (particularly at early-career stage) without a safety net or a leg up. 

The Pandemic Stories report, then, is really important in its drive to ‘crystallise moments’ from the pandemic, to ‘prevent our “pandemic stories”, our experiences, memories, and emotions of the acute phase of the pandemic, being irretrievably lost.’ It is also important in terms of its proactive stance, offering recommendations to heads of departments and EDI leads. But, on top of all this, the report is also important in the picture it reveals of the state of our discipline. Of the inequalities that pervade our universities. Of the precarity and financial insecurity and lack of inclusion on multiple axes. The 2019-20 CUCD report on Race and Gender was not about class, but respondents wanted to talk about class. The 2022 Pandemic Stories report is also not about class, but class inequalities are palpable throughout it. It’s time for us to address the elephant in the room. We are gathering the data, listening to your stories. If you haven’t already, please fill in the Class in Classics survey and share your experiences.

1 Cf. the recent report Getting in and getting on. Class, participation and job quality in the UK Creative IndustriesPolicy Review Series: Class in the Creative industries – Paper No. 1.
2 For analysis of the socioeconomic data provided by this survey see our earlier blog post ‘If Class Were a Protected Characteristic‘.
3 For the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women and girls overall, and not just in research, see this useful literature review.