‘But Miss, why are you working on reception?’

I am sat at a secondary school year 10 careers event, representing Higher Education. It is called ‘Meet the Professionals’. I also happen to work at this school as a part-time receptionist. As a representative of careers in higher education the pupils naturally ask, ‘but Miss, why are you working on the school reception?’

The answer to this innocent question is impossible to elucidate in a speed-dating-style set-up for 15 year-olds. Staying true to the aims of the careers event, pupils stump me with: ‘what is your favourite part of your job?’ How to explain, to school children whose outlets for creative and flexible thinking have been whittled away by curriculum changes and exam criteria, that the best part of my job is being free – and paid – to just think about history?

I can’t explain… because at that time, a month ago, I was a receptionist, a soon-to-be-Dr PhD student, a witness to the first round of strikes over pension cuts in universities, and an institution-less academic aghast at persistent evidence of privilege and inequality in recruitment and experience across academia. It would be unrealistic, deceptive and irresponsible of me to wistfully extemporize on the value of mere thinking, the life of the mind, amid such cynical and introspective times. I returned to my post behind reception feeling dejected.

I am aware that the one truly liberating aspect of my educational experience has been its transformative effect on my opportunities: like many of these school pupils now, my social status limited my chances but my education mobilised me. As far as possible, I wanted to encourage their highest aspirations. Yet, my immediately precarious existence, in which a delay has been unleashed on my housing decisions, my health and the hazy chance of a family and a future, prevents me from encouraging them to follow my suit. ‘But Miss, why are you working on the school reception?’ Because I have never achieved any step in my higher education without compromising myself financially, physically and psychologically, because though my start in life was no-where near as bad as some children, it was dramatically worse than most people who succeed in academia and I still pay for that.

The day before the event, I sheepishly tried to pull out, aware it would be incongruous to pose as a ‘professional’ when I didn’t even know if I had a future in this sector. Shouted down in the nicest possible way by the teacher who organised it, I was told that of all people to give advice to these pupils, I was ‘real’ and my example in other words was realistic: accessible. It was, of course, flattering to think I could set an example to anyone.

However, I am distinctly uncomfortable with the notion that the mere fact of my ‘disadvantaged’ background is the reason I should be proudest of my achievements: to succeed in academia required a certain amount of adaptation to this selective, intellectual world. It is embarrassing to me that in order to disrupt the course of my origins I had to subvert, deny and disassociate from them. Only in that way could I appeal to an intellectual audience; indeed, I often notice that when I slip up and betray my roots I incur a bit more suspicion, a little less benefit of the doubt from colleagues in some venues. In effect, I have conspired to maintain the very aura around academia that sets it apart from the real world and fortifies its exclusivity. Not only is the job of an academic hard to explain, but there is a sense of protectionism in the way many shore themselves up against the outside world. And for this reason, universities are often either completely out of touch with, or even disrespectful towards, undergraduates (amongst others).

This strike has exposed the multitude of real-world issues that concern all academics and HE professionals, it has also galvanized a cross-sector appreciation of entrenched privilege, at the same time, it has revealed a distinct lack of clarity about what academics do and why this is important, in particular the job of thinking. The creep of monetized education – the explicit link between degree and employment – speak to many commentators of an era in which creative and critical thinking is being exterminated.  Is this because non-academics, especially prospective students, are less and less likely to care about or value the mere act of thought? No. Is this because contributions from a more diverse range of ‘accessible’, more honest intellectuals would be necessary in order to popularise the value of thinking? Maybe. In effect, demystifying the work of higher education could help to bulwark the sector against political attack – the trade-off being that many an ivory tower would come tumbling down in the process.

Perhaps writing this post is just a bid for catharsis… or dignity, but it only takes trying to describe my work to a room full of teenagers, whose potential financial and psychological trauma I want no hand in, to realise that until the work of thinking makes sense to them, it won’t make sense to me.