Tag Archives: Accent

Accent-ism and UK universities

21 Nov

Fiona Hill’s excellent autobiography, There is nothing here for you here: Finding opportunity in the 21st century, has got me thinking about accent-ism and British universities. Dr Hill has had a stellar career: a PhD from Harvard, positions at a series of US think-tanks, has served in senior roles on the US National Security Council, and has worked with three US presidents. What is remarkable is that she comes from very straitened circumstances in the north east of England. Her book devotes considerable space to issues of class and gender (and some attention to race in relation to the US).

She tells – movingly – of a humiliating experience at an Oxford entrance interview, of being dismissed as a ‘common northerner’ by a fellow student at St Andrews, and of the very real constraints that poverty placed on her education choices and route. She also tells of acts of kindness, luck and good advice that helped her along the way. Also coming through the book is the sheer hard work and determination that – over the long haul – beat the social immobility traps that shape British society.

One thing that comes across in the book is how she was self-conscious of her north east accent as it signalled that she was an outsider and somehow did not belong in particular higher education settings. This got me thinking about my own experiences at British universities and what it’s like to have a regional accent. I can only speak from personal experience of the universities that I have worked at on this island – Lancaster, York, St Andrews, Manchester and Durham – and my professional networks. In all of these places (with the possible exception of Manchester) I have been struck by the absence of regional accents among academic staff. The most common accent among academic staff – born on the island of Britain – is accent-less English. It tends not to be the posh received pronunciation of past decades, but a modern iteration of it. In a few cases I have worked with ‘mockneys’ – middle class academics with a faux working class twang (I suspect it was adopted during their school years to avoid bullying). But, in general, the main accent among UK-born academics is no accent or a very suppressed regional accent.

There are a number of reasons for the absence of regional accents. Academics from “the regions” (and I can see how problematic that term can be) often stay close to home. There is also the need to be understood – in teaching, supervision and communication with colleagues. As a result, those with strong regional accents might try to ‘flatten’ their accent simply to be understood. A long time living away from one’s place of origin (and daily interaction in and with that accent) will usually bring a flattening of accents.

But I think class plays a major role in this too. As I understand it – and this comes out very well in Fiona Hill’s book – the English class system (and it seems more pronounced in England than elsewhere in the UK) is about legitimately fitting in at ‘the right level’. Dr Hill’s book records numerous incidences of middle class people thinking “What is she doing here?” when she opens her mouth and speaks with a regional accent. In universities – which serve as mechanisms for the reproduction of the middle class – this “What is s/he doing here?” mentality is the backdrop to a lot of interactions and calculations.

It is very probably at play in hiring processes where, as we know, unconscious bias is often at work. If you sound ‘right’ then people can concentrate on what you’re saying. If you sound different … well that’s an additional piece of baggage to go along with the understanding. Perhaps there is some conscious bias going on too, wherein regional accents are equated with being ‘thick’ or an outsider who does not belong. In all of this it is difficult to get away from class – a subject many English people (if I can generalise) are experts on, but often find uncomfortable to acknowledge. I am not sure that the nomenclature around the ‘widening participation agenda’ (schemes to encourage communities and groups who traditionally have not gone to university) is helpful. Why can’t we just call this ‘class’ (as well as ‘race’)?

I am conscious of my regional accent. It is very often the only one in the room. I have had quite a few experiences where I very clearly did not ‘fit’ – and a few humiliating job interviews early in my career where the principal form of communication from the interview panel was a sneer. Although, as a full-time, male professor I cannot claim to have done badly. And the accent-ism that I notice must be nothing compared to the very many academics in UK universities who do not have English as a first language. Nor am I seeking to compare accent-ism – at least in my case – with the racism and gender discrimination that is plain to see across the sector. There are also lots of regional accents to hear in the universities in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland (with the exception of St Andrews).

Yet accent-ism is worthy of discussion. It is wrapped up – as Dr Hill suggests – in imposter syndrome, as well as feelings of belonging, and the subtle structural factors that shape UK academia.