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The Society for Research into Higher Education

Space for self-affirmation? Working class student officers in UK students’ unions

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by Ruth Squire

In late 2016 the actions of students at one Oxford college caused a small flurry of media attention in the English national press as they brought a successful motion to create a ‘Class Liberation Officer’ role in their student committee. The coverage largely portrayed the students as ‘patronising’ or ‘misguided’, not to be taken seriously. Yet, these were not the first nor the only students to create such a role within their students’ union. Around 15 similar roles exist in students’ unions across the UK, all based in what could be considered ‘elite’ UK universities. Since at least 2015, students’ unions have had working-class student societies and there is also a national campaign ‘Britain has class’, started by a former ‘working-class student officer’. Whilst this could hardly be considered a political movement, it does run counter to expectations that working-class students are less likely to be engaged with ‘traditional’ aspects of the university experience. Nor does it fit with research that suggests that many working-class students ‘disidentify’ or distance themselves from a working-class identity in HE (Skeggs, 1997; Reay, Crozier & Clayton, 2009). So, why are some students embracing and making a very public declaration of working-class identity? Is this part of student strategies to navigate their HE experience or, as media coverage suggests, are these the actions of a privileged few ‘snowflakes’, championing the ‘fashionable’ cause of defending the working classes?

At the 2018 SRHE Newer Researchers Conference I presented my findings from interviews with six former and current working-class student officers in three Russell Group universities, where I explored what had brought them to their roles. Although the journeys and motivations of each of these students were very different, they were all very aware of their positions as working-class students in HE, not just as individuals but as part of wider political and academic discussions about class and education.

The students I spoke to were well aware before entering university that they were not the ‘typical’ student for their institution. Anticipating some ridicule for anything about them that marked them out as working-class – their dress, their accent, their financial resources – they had all prepared themselves to feel different to their peers. However, once in HE, they were surprised at their frustration, not at explicit mockery of their class background (which they did experience), but at occasions where they felt that their class and circumstances were erased, ignored or excluded. They spoke about ‘invasive’ financial support processes that assumed a familiarity with managing income and access to outside funds, and about essential support services that assumed levels of flexibility and financial resources not available to them – childcare provision on campus that ended before lectures, up-front payments expected for travel costs and dyslexia assessments. They found themselves ‘self-censoring’ aspects of their lives for fear of making their middle-class peers uncomfortable and were bemused when their classmates asserted that class ‘did not exist’.

“..it’s almost like you when you talk about it, your personal experiences, you don’t feel like you’re just doing that. It feels like you’re making a political point.”

The alienation and emotional burden of being ‘other’ in HE has been well documented by researchers, students, staff and other commentators. In this context, students knew that they were not alone – they pointed to both academic and media sources discussing working-class students in universities like theirs. They could point to public declarations by their institutions that they welcomed working-class students. Consequently, these students were not only personally frustrated but also confused as to why, in a context where the progression and education experiences of working-class students is a matter for political debate, they are still made invisible by the structures and attitudes of their universities and peers.

“…not challenging the middle-class space but sort of saying ‘hang about, we’re here’ you know? Just like other groups do. Just like other sort of liberation groups do.”

It is notable that these roles have emerged within students’ unions specifically. SUs in the UK are an emerging area in research, meaning we know relatively little about how, why and which students engage with them. However, they are potentially influential student spaces and, for these students, provided the structures and language to talk about their experiences in terms of identity and liberation. Although potentially uncomfortable given that many of these roles are occupied by white British men, these students appear to have found their SU a space for self-affirmation and asserting their identities in a way that they feel is not in conflict with their university or peers. Their student representative roles are part of the current fabric of the ‘elite’ university experience, meaning that asserting a working-class identity does not require them to reject the social advantages that they have worked hard to secure, nor does it require them to make new structures or re-work debates.

“I don’t really understand why it’s such a controversial issue…what are they going to do, like stop middle class students from going to university?!”

The students I interviewed were keen to emphasise that they are not revolutionaries, posed in opposition to their institutions or peers. Most are in their first full year of office, being watched cautiously by SU and university staff to see what value they bring. Though they were hopeful that their roles would bring change, they were cautious, acknowledging that issues were ‘ingrained’. They saw emotional peer support as the main value of their role and hoped that simply being visible might make their university take notice. All were struggling to build communities of working-class students, acknowledging that being emotionally and financially secure enough themselves to take on the demands of their roles, they were not representative of some of the challenges others like them faced.

These roles may be small scale, limited to particular types of institutions and contexts but they offer a reminder that students can act in sometimes surprising ways and should not be considered passive elements in determining the future shape of universities. For all the progress on widening participation, the experiences of these students show how much more may need to change for working-class students to feel that their universities are living up to public declarations of supporting others like them.

Reay, D, Crozier, G, & Clayton, J (2009) ‘“Strangers in paradise”?: Working-class students in elite universities’, Sociology, 43(6): 1103–1121.

Skeggs, B (1997) Formations of class and gender: becoming respectable. London: Sage

Ruth Squire (@curiousruth) is a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University, researching the role of third sector organisations in widening participation policy and practice. The research covered in this article was undertaken as part of a 1+3 ESRC funded PhD programme.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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