Spatial Disparities in Emotional Responses to Education

The blogpost below originally appeared on the Surrey Sociology blog. However, I am re-posting it here as it relates to a paper that I’m giving at the European Conference on Educational Research this week. It is based on a cross-national project I conducted in the UK and Denmark.


Historically, educational institutions have had an uneasy relationship with emotions. Following the Enlightenment tradition, schools and universities have often been concerned only with educating the mind, while side-lining the body[1]. Their focus has thus, traditionally, been on reason, rather than emotion. Boler argues that this privileging of the rational over the affective has acted as a means of social control, with women excluded from the ideal of reason on the basis of their supposed association with emotion and nature. Analyses of contemporary higher education have, however, suggested that recent years have witnessed a significant shift in the place of emotions within the academy. Indeed, Ecclestone and Hayes  maintain that higher education has become ‘therapeutised’, evidenced through: a concern with emotionally vulnerable students and staff; the rise of degree-level therapy and counselling courses; and an emphasis on therapeutic teacher training, which has influenced the nature of learning at university. Such changes, they suggest, are not confined to higher education, or even education more generally, but have permeated many areas of social policy – underpinned by a desire on the part of policymakers to promote ‘positive psychology’.

While many scholars have been sympathetic to arguments about the individualisation and psychologisation of social problems, Ecclestone and Hayes’ wider analysis of the place of emotions with higher education has had a more critical reception. Sue Clegg, for example, has taken issue with their assertion that any recognition of the affective has the effect of infantilising students and leads to the therapeutisation of higher education. Moreover, others have pointed out that there is a long history of feminist scholarship that has argued for the role of emotions within higher education to be made more visible, exploring the impact of ‘passionate attachments’ on pedagogy, and questioning the traditional binary split between emotion and reason.

This blogpost describes research that sought to contribute to this literature on the place of emotions within higher education through exploring the experiences of one particular group: students with dependent children (i.e. ‘student-parents’). It draws on data from two different European nations – the UK and Denmark – and, within each of them, from two higher education institutions (HEIs) with different market positions (one older, higher status HEI – ‘UK Older’ or ‘Danish Older’, and one newer, lower status institution ‘UK Newer’ and ‘Danish Newer’). 68 student-parents were interviewed across the two countries.

Guilt and UK student-parents

The extant literature indicates that students within UK higher education, who are also parents of dependent children, experience a range of emotions with respect to their studies, many of which are positive. However, within the current study, the emotion that was referred to most commonly was that of guilt. This was typically discussed in relation to respondents’ relationships with their children: many believed that the time they spent on studying was time that would otherwise have been devoted to childcare, and their children may well be suffering as a result. For a smaller number of respondents, guilt was felt in relation to their studies, rather than their children, primarily because they believed they were not spending sufficient time on their degree programme. For others, guilt was felt in relation to both children and study, as the quotation below from Esma (PhD in Gender Studies, UK Newer) indicates:

I think the biggest impact probably comes down to feelings of guilt, because I feel guilty when I’m with my children and I’m not working on my PhD and I feel guilty when I’m working on my PhD and I’m not with the children. 

Guilt was, however, not experienced equally across the UK sample of student-parents. Although it was a common theme amongst many of the student-mothers, it was mentioned by only one of the ten British student-fathers.  The guilt experienced by the UK student-mothers can be related to the strong normative constructions of mothering within the UK. The ‘intensive mothering’ promoted by the media, the state and other significant social actors can be seen as at odds with a decision to pursue a degree programme. Intensive mothering is understood as a gendered model that encourages women to spend a significant amount of time, energy and money raising their children, and which typically requires a considerable degree of maternal self-sacrifice. By placing responsibility for poor cognitive, social and educational outcomes on the shoulders of mothers, it is argued that they are set up for failure. Indeed, evidence suggests that, as a result of these particular expectations, many mothers not only fear that they may not be doing enough for the children, but also feel guilt – for not doing all that they could, or for wanting some time for themselves. Such emotions are inevitably heightened for those trying to juggle studying alongside mothering.

Feelings of guilt (or their absence) also appeared to be patterned by the institution the students attended: guilt was much more commonly mentioned by student-parents at UK Newer than by their counterparts at UK Older. There are a number of possible explanations for this difference. Firstly, the sample of UK Older students included considerably more men than the sample at UK Newer and there are notable differences between discourses of ‘good mothering’ and ‘good fathering’. Secondly, the larger number of international students at UK Older may be significant – as perhaps those who had lived most of their life outside the UK were less susceptible to ‘intensive parenting’ discourses and/or had taken the significant decision to move abroad for higher education only after feeling completely sure of their choice. Thirdly, the greater independent financial support accessed by the UK Older students  may have reduced the need to juggle childcare and study in the same way as the UK Newer students, who were often self-funding. Finally, the prestige associated with attending the highly-regarded UK Older may have mitigated any ambivalence felt at not being in paid work (for the student-fathers) or not ‘being there’ for longer (for the student-mothers).

Spatial differentiation: the evidence from Denmark

Implicit (and sometimes explicit) in much of the work on mothering and student-mothers is an assumption that experiences are common across nation-states (or at least across those of the Global North). However, the current research with student-parents in the UK and Denmark revealed significant differences across national borders. Feelings of guilt were much less common amongst the Danish students than amongst their British counterparts.

This suggests that emotions are differentiated, not only by social characteristics such as gender, as discussed above, but also spatially – in this case, by nation state.

Diane Reay has argued that emotional responses to education (such as anxiety and defensiveness) often follow from making what is felt to be a non-normative choice. The significant differences in normative behaviour between the UK and Denmark, in relevant areas, would suggest that this thesis may help to explain the differences in feelings of guilt across the two national contexts. Within Denmark, the level of female employment is high and it is common for mothers to return to full-time work when their children are young. As a result, there is little societal disapproval of mothers working outside the home. Moreover, despite dominant discourses that reiterate the importance of ‘intensive mothering’ elsewhere in Europe and beyond, within Denmark many still believe that the state plays an important role in childrearing, evidenced through the large number of state-subsidised nurseries across the country. Within this context, it seems likely that student-mothers feel much less pressure to be physically present throughout the day for their children, and thus do not experience feelings of guilt when they choose to study for a degree. Indeed, if student-mothers see the alternative to studying as being in paid employment (rather than being at home with their children), it is likely that they will believe that, if anything, their children are benefitting from their current situation. Within the UK, however, few student-mothers saw the alternative to studying as being in full-time employment; thus, the comparisons they drew were different.

Differences in gender relations within the two nations may also help to explain the variations in emotional response. Male partners of Danish student-mothers appeared to view studying as an intrinsically worthwhile activity, and were supportive of it in a variety of practical ways. Often this support also included taking responsibility for childcare – a practice that was rarely seen amongst the partners of the British student-mothers. This accords with other studies that have shown that while, in all countries, women do more domestic and caring work, men in Nordic nations are much more involved in childcare than their peers in the UK and other European countries. Thus, within a context in which male partners are willing, able and expected to share childcare, it is perhaps unsurprising that student-mothers do not feel guilt at combining study with raising a family.

Concluding thoughts

By drawing on the narratives of higher education students with dependent children studying in the UK and in Denmark, the research on which this blogpost draws provides evidence of the way in which the production of one particular emotion (guilt) is inextricably linked to social locations and spatial contexts. It has argues that feelings of guilt, on the part of student-parents, are influenced by a number of social characteristics, most notably, gender: of those studying at UK universities, the student-mothers were much more likely to report having felt guilty about combining study and childcare than the student-fathers. It also shows that there are important variations by space – between the two UK universities in the sample and between British student-parents and those in Denmark. Thus, while emotion is often theorised as a personal and individual experience, this research underlines the socially-constructed nature of emotional responses.


If you would like to read more about this research, do have a look at this article, published in the British Educational Research Journal.


[1] There is also, however, a large literature on how schools and other educational institutions ‘discipline’ the body.

The changing nature of students’ unions

I will be giving a talk at the European Conference on Educational Research this week about the role of students’ unions within higher education. Below, I outline some of the key points I’ll be making.

What role do students’ unions play in today’s HE system?

Students’ unions have a long history in the UK, with the first having been established at St Andrew’s University in Scotland in 1864. Historically, they have tended to carry out a range of functions for their members including: organising social activities; providing support on a range of academic and welfare issues; representing students both individually and collectively; and campaigning on local and national issues – although the relative importance of these functions has differed over time.

Despite radical changes to the UK higher education sector over recent years, the role of the students’ union, within this shifting landscape has remained largely unexplored. With the aim of starting to redress this gap, over the past couple of years, Kate Byford, Katherine Sela and I have conducted a UK-wide survey of students’ union officers and two focus groups at each of ten case-study higher education institutions – one with students’ union leaders and the other with senior managers of the institution. The data we have generated, through these methods, suggest strongly that the role of students’ unions has changed significantly over the last decade.

Increasing importance of the representative function

Firstly, we found that a large majority of our respondents believed that the ‘representative’ function (i.e. representing the views and concerns of all sections of the student body) of students’ unions had become increasingly important and that, in many cases, this has been associated with a decline in the importance of other functions such as more ‘activist’ pursuits (e.g. campaigning on national and local issues) and the provision of services to students (through, for example, advice and guidance sessions and/or as part of commercial activities). Although this shift was welcomed by many of those who took part in our research, a significant minority of our respondents did raise some concerns about this new focus. For example, one of the focus groups comprised of senior managers commented: ‘I think what we’re probably articulating is a pattern where the student union influence [on the university] ….  has just eroded and eroded and eroded and is being distilled down to this kind of pivotal role around representation and so on and that just leads to all the questions around, you know, what’s it there for, what’s it doing and that kind of thing and so on.’

Increasing importance of non-elected officers

Secondly, alongside a shift towards prioritising representation, many participants described how permanent staff within the students’ union had come to take on more power, sometimes at the expense of those who had been elected. The senior managers at one of our case study institutions were typical of many in noting that there had been a ‘shift of balance of our contacts’ away from elected officers and towards those in long-term roles. They described how there were now fewer sabbatical officer roles, and financial responsibility had been transferred from elected officers to the senior manager of the students’ union. For a large majority of respondents, such changes were seen in broadly positive terms, as providing greater continuity from year to year, and better support structures for those in elected positions (who typically occupy their role for one year only), particularly at the start of their term of office. Not all respondents were, however, entirely comfortable with this change in roles, with some believing that it sometimes made it harder for those in elected roles to advance their own agenda. Indeed, one of our respondents commented: ‘I know that some [elected] officers have found it difficult challenging the [students’ union] senior leadership team, who have naturally all come from leadership roles and are leaders themselves, to say actually, “This is the representational voice of students….and this is the direction we’d like to go with please”.’

Relationships with senior management

Finally, many of those who took part in the research believed that the relationship between students’ union officers and senior institutional managers had changed over time, and that there was now a new willingness on both sides to engage in constructive ways. This change was typically explained by pointing to developments in the external environment, particularly the increase in tuition fees and the insertion of the question about the performance of students’ unions into the annual National Student Survey. Students’ union officers at one of our case study institutions, for example, claimed that their senior managers ‘know they have to respond to the customers’, while senior managers at another university stated explicitly that the students’ union had become increasingly important because of the emphasis that had come to be placed on the ‘student voice’ ‘for a variety of reasons, not least the NSS and its influence on league tables’. Nevertheless, while a majority of respondents from both students’ unions and senior management described closer, more co-operative and less adversarial relationships, this was rarely thought to have been associated with any significant shift of power away from institutional leaders.

What is the significance of these changes?

The strong evidence of an increased focus on the representative role of students’ unions, and the importance attributed to this by many respondents provides some support for the arguments made by scholars that the student voice has become increasingly ‘domesticated’. By focussing on representation, students’ union officers inevitably foreground issues that affect the day-to-day lives of students rather than broader political or social concerns that may be more aligned with an ‘activist’ agenda. Moreover, the increasing convergence between the values and priorities of students’ unions and senior management (as a result of similar pressures coming to bear on both parties), suggests that fewer spaces are now available within higher education institutions from which to offer a radical challenge to either local or national policy.

While students’ unions may provide an important space within higher education institutions for like-minded people to get together and pursue collaborative projects, our research has provided little evidence to support the argument that has been made by Crossley and Ibrahim that they play a significant role in facilitating political engagement, or inculcating a more ‘activist’ orientation. Our data suggest that the space of the students’ union was important for bringing students together, but typically for the purpose of representing other students and/or delivering services and events in the wider institution. In line with Sabri’s argument, we suggest that student ‘voice’ was articulated primarily in relation to concerns about ‘the student experience’ rather than any more political agendas.

The increasingly powerful role, within students’ unions, of permanent members of staff also raises questions about Crossley and Ibrahim’s thesis, as elected officers (in some institutions) come to have less contact with senior managers, and strategic priorities are increasingly shaped by those without a democratic mandate.  Nevertheless, in relating our data to broader themes about political engagement, it is important to emphasise that we are not claiming that the voice of all students has been ‘domesticated’. Indeed, evidence of recent student occupations in the UK suggests that there remain some spaces within higher education – even if not within the day-to-day practices of students’ unions – within which more radical critiques can be articulated and students can engage politically.

Many of our students’ union respondents believed they did have a significant influence on the senior management within their institution, and certainly felt that they were listened to by senior staff more than their counterparts had been in the past. Nevertheless, they were also clear about the limits to their influence, with almost all those who took part in the focus groups believing that, ultimately, power lay with senior managers. The evidence discussed above also suggests that the power of those holding elected positions was being eroded within students’ unions by the increasing importance of permanent members of staff.  Furthermore, the focus on ‘local’ issues, as a consequence of the foregrounding of the representative role with the remit of both the students’ union as a whole and that of individual officers, suggests that the arena within which power and influence can be exerted is limited. We thus conclude by suggesting that, here, there are broad parallels with the critiques that have been made in other areas – for example, in relation to school councils and youth parliaments – that initiatives to give ‘voice’ often fail to facilitate genuine political expression or enable real power to be exercised.


This blogpost is based on this article, which was published in the Journal of Education Policy. A similar blogpost has also been published on the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey’s blog.


Students as agents for change?

Call for papers: Theorizing Citizenship in Higher Education: Students as Agents for Change?

Mark Holton (Plymouth University) and Yi’En Cheng (Yale-NUS College) are organising a session at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting 2017 (Boston MA, 5-9 April) on higher education students as active citizens. See call for papers below – it looks like it will be an excellent event, and of interest to sociologists and educationalists, as well as geographers

Citizenship – whether it is constitutional-legal status tied to certain rights and responsibilities; or practiced by people as they navigate obstacles to carve out spaces and communities of belonging; or even as embodied, sensuous, and felt within the psychic and emotional realms – is central to a repertoire of issues in contemporary restructuring of higher education around the world. Recent research has begun to question how various processes are changing students’ ideas and practices around citizenship: from the increasingly globalised networks of students moving around the world to the neoliberalization of higher education policies that have heavily marketized (transnational) degree programmes, term-time accommodation, and student organizations and unions; from the mounting pressure on students to search for and acquire ‘useful’ cultural and embodied capitals, such as critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and global competencies, to the ways in which students’ identities are negotiated, accepted, or rejected on campuses. At the same time, class, gender, race/ethnicity and other social differences continue to act as prisms through which inequalities are [re]produced, even though these can also occur alongside hopeful practices of love, care, solidarity, and anti-injustice. Analyses of interactions across structure, agency, and change are part and parcel of writings about these young people’s educational lives. How might the notion of citizenship help frame these ongoing discussions and/or open up conversations about students-as-citizens? What kinds of citizenships are emerging in these different moments of higher educational change? Relatedly, how can that further our understanding of higher education spaces as contentious, politicized, and possibly radical locations?

In this session, we explore how citizenship can be theorized in diverse contexts of higher education, across both the global north and south. By fostering a dialogue between citizenship studies and geographies of higher education, the session will allow us to rethink and renew the research agenda on the geographies of higher education students. We are interested in multiple ways of thinking about citizenship as informed by students’ experiences during and beyond term-time, their mobilities across various scales and borders, as well as their engagement with explicit and implicit forms of politics. We want to unpack the ways in which dominant understandings of the ‘student voice’ and the ‘student experience’ in higher education are assembled through representations, discourses, and practices of citizenship within particular political-economic and socio-cultural regimes. We are also keen to examine students’ responses to the burdens placed upon them in terms of peer, institutional and policy pressures and the extent to which this might act as potential catalysts for change. Papers that offer fresh materials, theoretically and empirically, to advancing existing scholarship on the geographies of citizenship in higher education and student lives are especially welcomed.

Please submit a 250-word abstract with title and short bio to Mark Holton ( and Yi’En Cheng (, by 20 September 2016.

Symposium on Student Politics and Protest

Despite allegations of political disengagement and apathy on the part of the young, the last ten years have witnessed a considerable degree of political activity by young people – much of it led by students (for example, protests against tuition fees, or as part of the Occupy movement) and/or directed at changes to the higher education system. Such activity has been evident across the globe.

We will be running a symposium at the SRHE annual conference in December to bring together contributions from various different national contexts to explore such trends in a rigorous manner. It will address a number of important themes, including: the focus and nature of student politics and protest; the contribution of students’ unions and student movements; whether students are engaging in fundamentally new forms of political activity; the characteristics of politically-engaged students; the extent to which such activity can be considered to be ‘globalised’; and societal responses to political activity on the part of students.

It will also be a means of publicising the book, Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives, which will be published in the Routledge and SRHE series later in the year. All those presenting papers as part of the symposium (Alex Hensby, Lorenzo Cini, Gritt Nielsen, Bruce Macfarlane and Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela) have also written one of the chapters in the forthcoming book.