What does your father do?

Aug 8, 2019 | Sector & policy

As a new academic year approaches, Dr Paul Redmond, Director of Student Experience and Enhancement at University of Liverpool, considers the influence of parents on student lives and careers.

Before the mass expansion of higher education, the era when universities first opened their doors to large numbers of working class students was in the late 1960s: not quite between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP, but near enough.

For the first time, significant numbers of students from what we’d now call widening participation backgrounds began enrolling for degree courses. It was an experience many would never forget.

Fortunately for us, they recorded their experiences in some of most evocative books, poems, plays and movie scripts ever written about higher education. From these emerges a shared sense of never quite fitting in; of living with the constant dread of being ‘caught out’ or made to feel socially inept; of being ‘unmasked’ as a fraud.

And often, all it took to trigger full-scale imposter syndrome, was a certain question from a lecturer or fellow student: “What does your father do?”

For a second, try to put yourself in their shoes. It’s your first day at university. Around you are pipe-smoking, tweed-clad, Brideshead Revisited types (or so they appear to you). You’re alone, homesick, and beginning to feel that you’ve made the biggest mistake of your life. And now they want to know about your dad’s job? As far as you know, your entire university life might just depend on what you say next. It could also determine the direction of your future, as yet undisclosed, career.

Because what this generation discovered on arriving at university was very thing they thought they’d escaped: social (and sexual) discrimination (note: it’s always father’s job, never mother’s). And it didn’t stop at graduation. Similar levels of discrimination were also thriving in the nascent graduate recruitment industry where social and cultural capital were often a key factor in deciding who got which jobs.

Fifty-years on, what your parents do, or don’t do, is no longer relevant. Partly this is because universities have become far more representative of wider society. And partly it’s because traditional perceptions of ‘middle-class’ and ‘working-class’ occupations are becoming redundant. How do you gauge the social class of a computer coder, web-designer, cloud consultant? Re-wilding specialist, anyone?

The poet Roger McGough, himself one of the first working-class students to enrol at Hull University (tutored by Philip Larkin, no less) has written about the terrors he experienced whenever “some bright spark, usually Sociology” asked him what his father did. McGough’s dad was a Liverpool docker – information his son was anxious to avoid spilling, particularly before professors and certain head librarians. So he’d mumble ‘docker’ in the hope that it might sound like ‘doctor’ (“There he goes, a doctor’s son, and every inch the medical man.”) Or he’d try injecting a touch of Hollywood glamour: “He’s a stevedore, from the Spanish, ‘estibador.”

But this sounded too ‘On the Waterfront’ and as he admitted, “Dad was no Marlon Brando.”

Finally he opted for, “He works on the docks in Liverpool,” which was technically true and left the door open for a range of middle-class possibilities: customs and excise officer, clerk, Chairman of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.

In later life, McGough would cringe when recalling how embarrassed he’d been when talking about his father’s job, a job his dad had been extremely proud of. At night, the poet would dream that he could hear his father’s voice proudly reciting the names of the great docks that he’d known and loved: “Gladstone, Hornby, Alexandra … Langton, Brocklebank, Canada … Huskisson, Sandon, Wellington.”

This year, as universities prepare to welcome the Class of 2019, let’s recognise and celebrate the overwhelmingly positive influence parents have on our students’ lives and careers. Let’s welcome them and their parents on to our campuses, dockers and doctors united.

Because despite what Larkin said, they don’t f*** you up, your mum and dad; they make us who we are.

This is from the summer issue of The Student Employer, available to read now.

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