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How do we enable transformative university transitions?

by Rita Hordósy

The Covid-19 pandemic meant a ‘swift and acute’ disruption to student experiences through the ‘dissolution of the physical and social environment’, and immediate financial hardship experienced by many. The issues of student retention, success, connectedness, and feeling included remain pressing issues for current entrants. To look at what it means to become a university student and a graduate, and to understand these issues in the whole student lifecycle, it is useful to draw on experiences from before the pandemic. Using yearly interviews with 40 home, undergraduate full-time students who started their studies in 2013/2014, my research at an English northern red brick university (NRBU) focused on how students understood, and made sense of, their experiences of student life as they moved into, through, and beyond university. All outcomes (research reports and papers) of this project are available via this link.  

Through the market system, a homogenised university experience became something packaged and sold, with the social elements all being included in the price tag to market one particular version of being at university. However, university choice and participation is experienced differently in a system that remains stratified and socially segregated, with large variety in student budgets creating differential contexts for learning.  

University space and time 

To make sense of how the university space and time are felt by students, I conceptualised transformative university transitions as a dynamic, perpetual and uncertain series of changes and movements through time and space to become a university student, and subsequently a graduate. For James, NRBU and its city as the spaces for reflection are intricately linked to who he became throughout the four years of his BA and MA: 

You, kind of, realised the limits of yourself and you realised the potentials of yourself, and that means that it harbours a weird significance, (…) that, kind of, roots you here. Not as intimate as it is your home, but as a second home of a place where you can feel like you belong, and that it is your city. James, fourth interview 

The overall university time is often understood based on the cycles of the academic year, chronicling how their approach changed to the wider community, their own learning and their future. Assessing her university time, Mary discusses the complex interlinks of exploring questions of identity, her relationships to others, and shifting focus on her university studies:   

I think I can’t imagine my life if I hadn’t gone [to university]. (…) It’s made me the way I am, I think. I absolutely loved Uni. Each year was so different as well, for me it was quite distinct. The first year was sort of a bit mental and kind of discovering who I was and all that… Second year was probably the worst. (…) I got a First but I don’t know, I think the change from the first year felt difficult. (…) I tried to calm down a bit in the second year but I went too far and I just had a boring time. And then third year I kind of had a bit of a balance between the two. (…) my life here was set up and I liked the house, and I was in a good relationship, do you know what I mean? And the course was getting really good and the dissertation…

[Mary, fourth interview]

The changing foci – as discussed below – of becoming social, academic, and a university graduate can be understood as stressors, where budgeting constraints and financial futures cut across all else, and can cause constant friction for the poorest students. Similarly, physical and mental ill-health of students, their families and friends, sometimes with tragic outcomes, can have a profound impact on their experience and outcomes.   

Social aspects of acclimatisation 

Although the first academic year is characterised by a sense of arrival, the new environment, timeframe, concepts, rules and especially new peers make university transitions emotionally overwhelming. The predominant stress factor throughout this period relates to the social requirements of university life, with the first few weeks even more tumultuous. However, centring living in university halls, joining sport clubs and other extracurricular participation can be exclusionary through high costs or basing it on excessive alcohol consumption. 

Finding a university community is key: the experience of being a student is constructed in social spaces, to be retained through the friendships made, ‘who I’ll keep in touch with forever’ [Chris, fourth interview]. The importance of peer groups relates to solving everyday issues and information gaps, support in their studies, and learning from and about each other in a broad sense, as Olivia points out: 

I think just learning off people has been, like, probably the most important thing actually, and not even from studies. (…) the people that you meet and the groups that you go to, through university, things you feel that become really important to you.

[Olivia, fourth interview] 

Upon finding a social fit within the university community, students talk about seeing beyond the initially perceived homogeneity and coming to appreciate the diversity across the institution. This then allows them to ‘stick out’, but also orientate themselves towards their academic duties.  

Learning to be academic 

Given learning experiences exist on a continuum within the life course, students will initially attempt to adapt their (often unsuitable) learning and revision techniques, whilst also grappling with a new learner identity. Upon gaining some level of familiarity and comfort with how the university operates, the academic aspects start falling into place. This tends to coincide with the second year, where the narrower and deeper focus on the subject area is compared to the broad and disjointed nature of the first academic year. 

To conquer the complex and unbounded nature of university knowledge, most students start actively prioritising and being selective on the basis of perceived importance within and between modules, tailoring the academic experiences to their needs. Students actively seek out more personalised relations with university staff and start go recognise the wide range of attitudes and interests of their tutors and lecturers. For instance, Kim discusses how her relationship with one of her lecturers changed over time: 

I think it definitely gets more friendly towards third year, there was one lecturer that we had in first year who was terrifying. (…) But then we’ve had her for a module this term and she just chats to people, she makes jokes in the lectures, she’ll show you pictures of her dog and stuff. I feel like they become a bit more friendly with you, as if you’re on the way to being on their kind of level intellectually maybe, as well as more mature.

[Kim, third interview]

Countering the alienation of the first academic year, second and especially third year students start to feel that they are known, and seen as individuals. The personalisation of learning along the clearly defined interests and the growing independence allow for creation of knowledge. Dissertations as capstones mean students become experts in an area they are passionate about: Aina, in her Masters year expressed her goal of ‘contributing to the actual field [of research] and just developing my career’ through a PhD. It is indeed through becoming passionate via the university studies, extracurricular activities, internships and part-time jobs that helps formulating career plans.

Towards becoming a graduate 

Throughout the final year, time once more becomes tumultuous, given the concerns around finishing university and figuring out what is next. As opposed to initial career ideas that looked at the ‘rest’ of the students’ lives, the later interviews saw their thinking focus on a shorter time-horizon. Robert tentatively embraces the uncertainty, keeping his options open: 

It’s not like I’m stuck down one route now. I’ve still got a whole load of different things to choose from, which is bad in a way, because it means I’ve got to make a decision at some point about what I’m going to do and it might be easier if someone just went “there, do that”.

[Robert, fourth interview]

This element of making important decisions prompts a distinction of ‘proper jobs’ versus ‘bog standard jobs’, with some graduates opting for ‘graduate gap years’. What some participants describe as a ‘random’, ‘bog standard’, ‘shitty’, or ‘normal’ job, tends to be in an industry not related to their degree: in catering, retail, service industry or the care sector. Such roles are considered short term, offer substantive flexibility for the graduate, do not require specific qualifications, and are not competitive – simply put, students are not invested in them. Conversely, graduate jobs are described as ‘real’, ‘adult’, ‘proper’, ‘a more academic’, a ‘career kind of’ job that they ‘would enjoy’. These are in sectors and industries they are striving to work in, and necessitate a degree and some specific skills. These competitive roles require flexibility from the graduate, but remunerate better, whilst also promising career progression. The ‘real’ jobs necessitate emotional investment and dedication, with constraints on leaving these roles. 

There are three key features of how graduates are thinking about their futures. First, they see themselves as graduates of their course at NRBU, hoping to work in a related sector, using their disciplinary knowledge or employing some specific skills they developed. Second, graduates aim to find an employer or role they can believe in, wanting to see the value of their work on a smaller scale and generally do good in the world – this is sometimes juxtaposed with prioritising earnings. For instance, Khaled in the third interview talks about a ‘materialistic view’ of ‘just doing [a job] because I’m getting money’ not fitting with how he ‘was brought up to think’, connecting this to his working-class background. Finally, they also reflect on their newfound confidence: in their abilities, them as people in social contexts, knowing their own strengths and weaknesses. It is this confidence that allows graduates to embrace the complexity of potential options and the trade-offs, as well as non-linear and serendipitous futures. As Amina suggested:   

I have changed, it’s been, I don’t know how to describe it, (…) I’m not the same person I was when I first initially started personality-wise. I’ve got so much more self-confidence in me as well, which I’ve never had and I’ve learned so much over the past three years (…) I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change.

[Amina, third interview] 

Recognising the multitude of dimensions at play, a diverse and interlinked set of future plans emerge, entangled in a commitment to personal concerns, values and identity, social relationships, belonging to a community and a place, as well as the wider structural constraints. Such limits are linked to financial insecurity and a sense of urgency to find a job, any job. Further, with fewer family connections future graduates are less likely to gain suitable work experience or help with job applications. 

How to enable transformative university transitions?  

Through their non-linear, multidimensional, and diverse transitions, this generation of students became (mostly) independent and (certainly) reflexive adults. University as a transformative space and time is much more than an investment into one’s human capital that should pay off as employment opportunities and earnings, or the way to fulfil short-term labour market needs. Graduates become engaged members of a broader community, gain substantive expertise in their chosen area of interest, and develop a broad plan for their futures.   

To foster transformative transitions for all, embracing the diversity in student and graduate experiences that also change over time is key. This means, first, knowing who students are, using sufficient scaffolding to make knowledge accessible, and fostering an inclusive university community. Second, a whole-institutional support provision throughout the student lifecycle that understands transitions as changeable and diverse could ensure more equitable access. Finally, stable and substantive non-repayable financial support is fundamental to level student experiences for those from poor backgrounds, especially in the context of the current cost of living crisis.     

SRHE member Rita Hordósy is a Nottingham Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and a co-convener of the SRHE Student Access and Experience Network. Her current research compares and contrasts the research / teaching nexus across European universities in Hungary, England and Norway. This blog is based on her recent paper ‘I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change’ – transformative university transitions’, in Research Papers in Education.



Making space in higher education research: Reporting back from our higher education geographies conference symposium

by Kate Carruthers Thomas and Holly Henderson

Space and place are too often the background and too rarely the central focus of higher education research. This was the argument of our symposium, which offered four ways of theorising the spatial in higher education. The conversation that began in this symposium extends far beyond the time allowed, and so we are continuing that conversation here, with each of the four symposium contributors summarising their use of the spatial in higher education research.

Kate Carruthers Thomas on Massey’s spatial concepts

I work with the spatial concepts of Doreen Massey to research and theorise higher education (HE).  Massey was a radical geographer, bringing a feminist perspective to discussions of space, place and power and her understanding of space as plural, heterogeneous and fluid energises an analysis of dominant forms of space and power in HE. My SRHE 2019 paper drew on two research examples: Gender(s) at Work (2018) exploring ways gender shapes experiences of the workplace and career in a post-1992 UK university, and Dimensions of Belonging (2016) problematising a sector-wide reductive narrative of ‘student belonging’ in relation to part-time students.

Applying Massey’s spatial propositions to HE frames ‘the university’ as a product of social relations shaped by geographies of powersocially-coded masculine. Universities originate from monasteries: elite, male-dominated spaces of knowledge production. The contemporary university remains shaped by the power geometry of patriarchal disciplinary discourses, traditions and cultures as well as male-defined constructions of work and career success. Massey coins the term ‘power geometry’ to describe how individuals and groups are differently positioned in relation to flows of capital and culture, to different geographies of power in particular contexts. How they are positioned shapes how they experience the spaces they are in. Gender(s) at Work extends the notion of geography of power to gender, examining how gender operates as a geography of power to position individuals and groups in relation to the flows and connections (of prestige, reward, status) within that activity space.

I also use Massey’s device of ‘activity space’ – the spatial network of links and activities, of spatial connections, locations within which agents operate (2005: 55). This multiscalar tool enables a view of individual universities as activity spaces (shaped by their own geographies of power) and as nodes in the wider activity space of a stratified HE sector. Dimensions of Belonging theorises four English universities as sites in relationship with locality, economy and the HE sector, with each university campus a complex territory of power and inequality in which belonging is negotiated.

To capture lived experiences of university spaces, I created a methodology of spatial storytelling; one sensitised to ‘the social as inexorably also spatial’ (Massey 1993:80).  This mobilises the idea of power geometry through combining narrative enquiry and visual mapping, disrupting and revealing spaces between organisational rhetoric/corporate narratives and lived experiences. 

Working with Massey in researching and theorizing HE both energises my analyses of space, place and power and leaves room for complexity and contradiction.  Spatial storytelling reveals ‘spaces between’ leaving ‘openings for something new’ (Massey 2005: 107).

Holly Henderson on de Certeau’s spatial stories

Higher education happens in places. It does not, however, happen in all places equally, and nor does it happen equally in any one place. The complexities of how higher education is understood and accessed in different places, and how places themselves are defined in relation to higher education, are multiple. In a previous project, which looked at students studying for degrees in post-industrial towns without universities, and in a current project, which looks at access to and experiences of higher education on small islands around the UK, I have used concepts from social geographies to try to get to grips with what it means to say that higher education happens (unequally) in places.

I use spatial analysis in three ways. Firstly, using the concept of spatial stories (de Certeau, 1984), I see any place as defined narratively through layers of stories. These stories are the ways that a town or street comes to be known as a ‘kind of’ place. Often, we do not notice that we are telling or hearing them, but they are fundamental to the way we understand our surroundings. Secondly, I extend spatial analysis to the relationship between higher education and place. In the UK, and especially in England, the dominant story is of a particular mobility pattern, in which the 18-year old undergraduate leaves the place of the familial home and moves into university accommodation in a new place. Finally, I ask how individuals narrate their own stories in relation to these first two factors; do they see themselves as belonging to the place they are living in, and has that question of belonging affected their decision to move or stay in place for degree education? Does the place they feel they belong to require that they make a decision between staying without studying higher education, or leaving in order to study? And if the place they are living and studying in does not have the same history of providing higher education as that of a well-known university city or town, does higher education fit straightforwardly with the enduring narratives through which the place is defined? These questions, and others that stem from them, position place at the centre of higher education research.

Fadia Dakka on Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis

Prompted by Ron Barnett’s claim about the ‘ineradicability of rhythm in university time’ (2015), my reflection extends to the nature of time, place and change in contemporary academia. In keeping with the theme of the Symposium, I emphasise how making space in higher education research subsumes both making time and ‘dwelling’ in it. Therefore, rhythm does not simply refer to the pace of activities within the university, but also to its ontological, epistemological and ethical dimensions. Using rhythm as a critical lens and a pedagogical orientation, I have examined the production of time and space in the everyday life of a teaching-intensive university in the West Midlands (2017-18), drawing inspiration from Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis (2004 [1991]) and Critique of Everyday Life (2014 [1947,1961, 1981]). I am particularly interested in the ethical and political implications that can be drawn from rhythmic analyses of ‘felt’ time and space (Wittman, 2017) in contemporary universities. On this basis, I have empirically explored notions of anticipation, dwelling, appropriation and presence within the contemporary university.

The analysis of the participants’ spatio-temporal experiences within the institution has revealed a plurality of academic rhythms that respond to radically different logics. The logic of accumulation, rooted in temporal linearity, exacerbates procedural anticipation, conflating quantification with educational progress. Within this logic, the emphasis on individual productivity and time-management produces an impoverished educational experience centred on constant adaptation and compliance. Spatially, this coincides with the abstract, conceived grid of institutional timetables, schedules and deadlines, the oppressive repetition of which reinforces a ‘pedagogy of domination’ (Middleton, 2014). On the other hand, the poetic logic, that translates Aristotle’s ‘poiesis’ as the human activity of bringing something new into the world, resonates with ideas of transformation, appropriation and dwelling which, in turn, reaffirm the centrality of imagination-relation-anticipation as a necessary condition for meaningful change.

Appropriation, dwelling and (anticipatory) presence have strong implications for how we inhabit the university space. For instance, the participants’ unorthodox production of space documented in the project epitomizes the Lefebvrian act of subversion whereby the perceived and lived spaces produced by the participants effectively disorientate the conceived space of the institution (Lefebvre, 1991 [1974]). The participants’ refusal to inhabit the homogeneous yet fragmented space of the capitalist institution (Stanek, 2011) contrasts with their dwelling in pockets of autonomous, reflective space/time meticulously carved out in their everyday. These forms of spatio-temporal appropriation need to be increasingly performed as collective, liberating acts of quotidian resistance, in order to subvert the capitalist institution from within. 

Sol Gamsu and Michael Donnelly on the relational construction of place

The moment of entry to higher education (HE) sees major patterns of internal migration within the UK. Accessing HE is, as we know, a process that is deeply implicated in the creation and reproduction of inequalities. Binding these basic points together in an analysis of flows of students between home or school and university allows us to show how the geography of education is central to core debates in geography. Like my colleagues, the work of Massey has been central to how I have conceptualized these processes. Place for Massey (2005: 139) forms ‘where the successions of meetings, the accumulation of weavings and encounters build up a history.’ Regional boundaries are formed through the concentration of particular social practices that become symbolically and spatially associated with certain boundaries and reflect and re-create divisions and hierarchies (Cooke, 1985; Paasi, 2011).

These patterns develop over time and are rooted in particular political economies with HE provision largely instigated, or at least largely financed, by the state. The historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power, the spatial contexts of regional dominance within England, the relative autonomy of the Welsh, Scottish and (Northern) Irish systems of governance in relation to power of the Anglo-British state – HE has been a central field that has been shaped by and in turn reinforced the spatial hierarchies and divisions created through the state. Beyond these structural geographies though, cultural geographies of regional division are also reflected and created by individual mobilities created by daily or termly movements to and from university and home.

Our paper (Gamsu and Donnelly, forthcoming) explores these theoretical issues, using social network analysis (SNA) methods to highlight how recognizable regional and national boundaries are present in students’ mobility patterns. Taking the example of students moving from Northern Ireland to Liverpool we explore how student mobilities reflect historical patterns of migration across the Irish Sea. Using the same SNA approach, we examine the distinctive hierarchies of schools and universities present in school to university movements. We find a cluster of primarily English elite private and state schools and universities. Quantitative SNA methods are complemented by qualitative interviews and mapping techniques to allow us to show how student mobilities at the micro-level create, reflect and reinforce historical spatial boundaries and socio-spatial hierarchies of institutions.

In Conclusion

To draw these distinctive approaches together we briefly revisit the original aims of our symposium, the first of which was to highlight the often unseen ways that space and place structure higher education, and structure it unequally. Inequalities and difference underpin Henderson’s work with spatial stories working to understand ways in which higher education happens (unequally) in places, while Carruthers Thomas frames the university itself as a complex territory of power and inequality. Spatial analyses throw up difference and relationship in Dakka’s uncovering of a plurality of contradictory academic rhythms in the everyday life within a teaching-intensive university and, in analysing flows of students between home/school and university, Gamsu and Donnelly highlight the shaping of HE through local, regional and national differences reflecting historical and contemporary geographies of local and national state power.

The second aim of the symposium was to demonstrate different possibilities for the use of spatial theory in researching higher education, providing new insights into enduring debates. To this end, each of the four papers foreground particular spatial/temporal concepts or processes. By putting place at the centre of her research into island HE Henderson gains new insights into narratives of HE and belonging. Gamsu and Donnelly frame the moment of entry into HE as a pattern of internal migration, using social network analysis to highlight regional and national boundaries in student mobility patterns.  Carruthers Thomas positions gender as a geography of power within the university as means of examining spaces between organisational rhetoric of equality and lived experience. Meanwhile Dakka introduces opposing logics – the logic of accumulation and poetic logic to challenge the privileging of individual productivity over reflective space/time carved out in the everyday.

Dr Kate Carruthers Thomas is a Senior Research Fellow and Athena SWAN Project Manager at Birmingham City University, UK. She specialises in interdisciplinary enquiry into contemporary higher education, inequalities and gender; in spatial methods and analyses. Kate also uses poetry and graphics as methods of disseminating her research in these fields. 

Dr Holly Henderson is an Assistant Professor in Education at the University of Nottingham. She has previously held positions at the University of Birmingham and began her career teaching in Further Education in London. Her research and teaching focus broadly on sociological issues of inequality in education. In particular, she is interested in access to and experiences of post-compulsory and higher education. Her research is theoretically informed by social geographies, which enable analysis of the ways in which place, space and mobilities structure educational possibility. She is also interested in narrative and its relationship to subjectivity.


Barnett, R (2015) ‘The time of reason and the ecological university’, in Gibbs, P, Ylijoki, OH, Guzman-Valenzuela, C, Barnett, R (2015) Universities in the Flux of Time London: Routledge pp 121-134
Carruthers Thomas, K (2019) ‘Gender as a Geography of Power’ in Crimmins, G (ed) (2019) Strategies for Resisting Sexism in the Academy London: Palgrave Macmillan

Carruthers Thomas, K (2018) Rethinking Student Belonging in Higher Education: From Bourdieu to Borderlands London: Routledge

Cooke P (1985) ‘Class practices as regional markers: a contribution to labour geography’ in Gregory, D and Urry, J (eds) Social relations and spatial structures London: Macmillan, pp 213-241

De Certeau, M (1984) The practice of everyday life (S Randall trans.) California. University of Berkley Press
Gamsu, S and Donnelly, M (Forthcoming) ‘Social network analysis methods and the geography of education: regional divides and elite circuits in the school to university transition in the UK’ Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie

Lefebvre, H (1991 [1974]) The Production of Space Oxford: Blackwells Publishers Ltd

Lefebvre, H (2004 [1991]) Rhythmanalysis: Space, time and everyday life London: Bloomsbury

Lefebvre, H (2014 [1947,1961,1981]) Critique of Everyday Life London: Verso

Massey, D (1993) ‘Power-Geometry and a Progressive Sense of Place’. In Bird, J, Curtis, B, Putnam, T, Robertson, G and Tuckner, L (eds) Mapping the Futures: Local Cultures, Global Chance. Abingdon: Routledge pp 59-69

Massey, D (2005) For space, London: Sage

Middleton, S (2014) Henri Lefebvre and Education. Space, History, Theory New York: Routledge

Paasi, A (2011) ‘The region, identity, and power’ Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences 14: 9-16

Stanek, L (2011) Henri Lefebvre on Space. Architecture, Urban Research and the Production of Theory Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press

Wittman, M (2017) Felt Time. The science of how we experience time. Cambridge: MIT Press

The Symposium was held at the 2019 SRHE Research Conference at Celtic Manor. I bet you’re sorry you missed it.


What if flashier buildings don’t make happier learners?

By Steven Jones

In some respects, students at UK universities have never had it so good. Dusty old lecture theatres are being torn down and shimmering new ‘learning environments’ erected in their place. Between 2013 and 2017, outlay on buildings and facilities at higher-prestige institutions alone matched that spent on the London Olympics (BiGGAR Economics, 2014), with some universities issuing public bonds to raise extra coffers for campus development projects.

But how can the UK Higher Education sector be sure that its unprecedented levels of capital expenditure are leveraging commensurate ground-level pedagogical gains? Evaluation mechanisms, where they exist, tend not to be student-centred. For example, the Association of University Directors of Estates reports that income per square metre increased by 34 per cent across the sector between 2004 and 2013. While this might make for a healthy balance sheet, it tells us little about the ways in which staff and students engage with their environment. As Paul Temple noted in his 2007 report for the Higher Education Academy (“Learning Spaces for the 21st Century”), university buildings have the potential to transform how learning happens. The challenge for the sector is how best to assess their impact. Continue reading