Social background

Tre personer går opp en stor trapp

(Illustration: iStockphoto)

“We know that social background influences who takes higher education and what they decide to study, but we don’t know much about how class affects academic careers,” according to Thea Strømme.

Recent years have seen a greater focus on what role socioeconomic background – or class – plays in educational choices and research careers.

“It shouldn’t be about gender, or whether your name is Preben or Mohammed. We need different people, we need diversity in higher education,” Ingvild Reymert, head of Oslo Business School at OsloMet, stated in the news article “Not a goal that everyone takes higher education”.

What is class and why is it important for students, researchers and research institutions? Several researchers emphasise that although class in academia is not a major research field in Norway, it is a large field outside Norway.

Inequality research has long used the term first-generation student, especially internationally. This group has also been in the spotlight in recent years here in Norway, with numerous opinion pieces and articles in the mass media.

Terms: What are we talking about?

Research on social inequality often looks at several dimensions, such as gender, social or ethnic background.

This page is mainly about what is often called class, social class or socio-economic background. Class is a way of understanding inequality, including income, education and occupation.

First-generation student is the term used for the first person in a family to take higher education, while first-generation academic is used about the first person to become a researcher – often used in relation to working-class backgrounds.

Read about gender balance and ethnic diversity in research

Myths about class

There are two myths about class in academia, according to Silje Fekjær, Vice-Rector at OsloMet: One is that class doesn’t matter anymore, and the other is that everyone takes higher education. She goes on to say:

“However, the research shows that class has an impact on, among other things, educational choices and dropout, and that still only about a third of the population has higher education.” (Fekjær, Kifinfo 2022)

In recent years, both first-generation students and first-generation academics have become common terms for the first student in the family and the first researcher in the family. Both students and researchers have given accounts of their own class journeys. We hear about people being the first person in their family to become a student or researcher, or the only person in a study or research group with a working class background.

“Very little has been written about first-generation students in Norway,” PhD student Margit Ims wrote in an essay (Kifinfo 2023, in Norwegian only). Ims is one of the researchers who has written about class journeys.

“We need to talk about social class in academia”

In 2024, for the first time, Statistics Norway published statistics on social class in the research sector for the years 2012 to 2022 with “Skewed recruitment to academia” (in Norwegian only).

See the overview statistics on gender balance and diversity at Kifinfo.

In 2022, the Ministry of Education and Research expanded the mandate of the national Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF Committee) to include social background. The KIF Committee held its first event on social background in December 2023: “We need to talk about class in academia” (in Norwegian only).

Researchers and social background

The statistics tell us that:

  • 66 per cent of researchers had parents with higher education in 2022, which is a higher proportion than the corresponding figure for students, but much higher than for the population as a whole, where 32 per cent have parents with higher education.
  • There are major differences between younger and older researchers, with the youngest researchers having the highest proportion of parents with higher education.
  • There are also major differences between the educational institutions.

Figures from the Higher Education Authority in Sweden show that:

  • It is more common for doctoral students to have highly educated parents than the population as a whole, and this is more common among new doctoral students than among new students.

More statistics from the Swedish Higher Education Authority (in Swedish only)

Figures on PhD candidates: Professor Marianne Nordli Hansen has looked at class background among PhD students, and in an interview with Forskerforum (2019) she refers to the following figures:

  • Around 78 per cent of PhD candidates have an upper or upper-middle class background.
  • The working class make up over 30 per cent of the population, but only account for about 7 per cent of PhD candidates.

More about researchers and social background at Kifinfo: Statistics on gender balance and diversity

Students, educational choices and social background

“It is very evident that higher education is stratified by class. It is more likely that young people with parents with higher education choose to take higher education themselves,” says Ingvild Reymert, making reference to other studies.

Parents’ level of education is of great importance to children and young people’s performance at all levels of education, according to the HK-dir memo Diversity and inequality in higher education (in Norwegian only), whose findings include:

  • The children of parents with higher education are more likely to take and complete higher education.
  • The practice of children following in the footsteps of their parents is particularly evident in longer programmes of professional study such as law and medicine.
  • Immigrants and Norwegian-born to immigrant parents, to a greater extent than the general population, study dentistry, medicine and pharmacy, but are underrepresented in teacher education programmes.


In the research sector, many universities, university colleges and research institutes employ measures to address gender balance, both among students and researchers. Fewer measures have been implemented, however, to address the imbalance in ethnic and social background. This reflects the fact that some find it difficult to know which measures will work, while others are concerned that such measures may be stigmatising.

For example, Vice-Rector Silje Fekjær believes that it is more important that institutions create good study environments than that they employ individual measures. Fekjær is sceptical to universities and university colleges drawing up specific measures directed towards first-generation students:

“The point is that what helps first-generation students is good for everyone. The learning environment will be better for everyone if we talk about the secret codes and expectations.”

Good study environments, inclusion and work on culture and structure are essential. However, the most important message from numerous researchers and practitioners is to see dimensions in context – to have an intersectional perspective on equality work.

Professor Marianne N. Hansen believes, however, that the research sector can begin with the students: “The universities and university colleges can start by implementing measures for parents who are poorly off,” she says in this news article (from 2022), and:

“When it comes to recruitment, the higher education sector should look at the funding system and how it works. General funding schemes are common in Norway, but they don’t necessarily target the worst off.”

Others have suggested organising various types of introductory courses and mentoring programmes as possible measures to address social background.

Recommendations for the research sector:

  • Talk about the secret codes
  • Start an introductory course or mentoring programme
  • Implement measures for students who are badly off
  • Have an intersectional perspective on equality work
Read more about social background in research

In the past, most statistics and research on social background have been collected about students, and less about researchers, at universities, university colleges and research institutes.

Class at universities and university colleges
Some universities and university colleges in Norway mention “socio-economic background” and “social class” in their action plans. However, the sections on the status and measures regarding equality and diversity normally reference gender and ethnic background, and not class.

The University of Oslo’s action plan for diversity, equality and inclusion states:
“The University of Oslo will be an open and inclusive university based on equality and respect and where there is a safe working and learning environment with space for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic background, age, religion, etc.”

In the US, Berkeley University includes socioeconomic status when describing diversity as follows:
«These differences include race, ethnicity, gender, age, religion, language, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity, political diversity, socioeconomic status, and geographic region, and more.»

Mentoring programme at the University of Cologne
First-generation students can apply for a job as a research assistant while also receiving guidance from a research employee. The student and the research employee become tandem partners and thus part of the mentoring programme.

News at Kifinfo about class

We update the literature list at Kifinfo with publications about social background. Keep an eye on this page, and send us tips about relevant publications.

The KIF Committee and social background

At Kifinfo, we write about equality and diversity in research, based on the mandate of the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF Committee).

The Ministry of Education and Research decided that social background should be included in the KIF Committee’s mandate from 2022. This sixth KIF committee will look at how gender and social and ethnic background affect critical transitions in a research career, from the path into research to senior-level and leadership positions.

See its mandate for the period 2022– 2025: Mandate for the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research (KIF)