Materialities and Mobilities in Education – One-Day Conference

Monday January 8 2018

School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3QY, UK (Gottman Room)

Kindly sponsored by the Economic Justice and Social Transformation research cluster, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

9.30 – 10.00am:  Registration

10.00 – 11.00am: Welcome and Keynote 1

‘Spatial imaginaries’ and the transition to university:  an intersectional analysis of class, ethnicity and place (Michael Donnelly, University of Bristol).

11.00 – 1.00pm: Parallel Sessions

1a (Gottman Room)

i.          Mobile preschools, mobilities and materialities (Danielle van der Burgt and Katarina Gustafson, Uppsala University)

ii.          Moving beyond immobility: narratives of undergraduate mobility at the ‘local’ college (Holly Henderson, University of Birmingham)

iii.          We’re going on a journey: materialities and mobilities in the Outward Bound Trust (Jo Hickman Dunne, Loughborough University)

iv.          Building colleges for the future: pedagogical and ideological spaces (Rob Smith, Birmingham City University)

v.          The construction of hypermobile subjectivities in higher education: implications for materialities (Aline Courtois, University College London)

1b (Gilbert Room)

i.                 Materiality and meaning-making: towards creative mapping praxis on ‘post-conflict’ Belfast (Amy Mulvenna, University of Manchester)

ii.                Materiality and the formation of transnational identities among British Ghanaian children schooling in Ghana (Emma Abotsi, University of Oxford)

iii.               The school bus as agentic assemblage (Cathy Gristy, Plymouth University)

iv.               Learning ‘the feel’ in the wooden boat workshop: material perception as understanding (Tom Martin, University of Oxford)

v.                Relational mobilities: global citizenships between international ad local private schools (Sophie Cranston, Loughborough University)

1.00 – 1.45pm: LUNCH (Gottman Room)

1.45 – 2.30pm: Keynote 2

Choreographies of belonging: Reimagining ‘local’ students’ everyday (im)mobiities in Higher Education (Kirsty Finn, Lancaster University)

2.45 – 4.45pm: Parallel Sessions

Session 2a (Gottman Room)

i)                 International study in the global south: linking institutional, staff, student and knowledge mobilities (Parvati Raghuram, Open University)

ii)                Higher education mobilities: a cross-national European comparison (Rachel Brooks, University of Surrey)

iii)               Transnational encounters. Constructions of schools and (post)colonialism across continents 1945 – 1975 (Ning de Conick-Smith, Aarhus University)

iv)               The space in-between: the materiality and sociality of the international branch campus in China (Kris Hyesoo Lee, University of Oxford)

v)                Materialities and (im)mobilities in transnational capacity-building projects in higher education (Hanne Kristine Adriansen, Aarhus University)

Session 2b (Gilbert Room)

i.                 ‘In two places at once: academics with caring responsibilities, conference mobility and the role of communication devices’ (Emily F. Henderson, University of Warwick)

ii.                Data and school spaces – materialisations, circulations and temporalities (Matt Finn, Exeter University)

iii.               The role of technology in shaping student identity during transitions to university: how technology is affecting the way students experience and conceptualise the university as a social, academic and physical space (Harry T. Dyer, University of East Anglia)

iv.               Making space for academic work (Mary Hamilton, Lancaster University)

v.                Between omnipotence and immobility: a comparison of banking, Hollywood and further study as popular pathways amongst graduates from an elite university in New York (John Loewenthal, Oxford Brookes University)

4.45 – 5.30pm: Closing Remarks; Book Launch and Wine (Gottman Room)

One-day Conference on Materialities and Mobilities in Education

Monday, January 8th 2018, 10am – 5pm (followed by drinks reception and book launch)

School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford

Keynote speakers:

Michael Donnelly (University of Bristol): ‘Spatial imaginaries’ and the transition to university:  an intersectional analysis of class, ethnicity and place

Kirsty Finn (Lancaster University): Choreographies of belonging: Reimagining ‘local’ students’ everyday (im)mobiities in Higher Education

Call for papers

This one-day event, hosted by the School of Geography and Environment, University of Oxford, offers an opportunity for researchers to consider the much-neglected materialities of educational processes (both historical and contemporary) and how those materialities might intersect with an understanding of educational mobilities, space and place. Examples of ‘materialities’ affecting education might include: infrastructure and modes of transportation, architecture and urban design, furniture, books and stationery, forests and outdoor spaces, and various ‘props’ associated with learning. They may also include the ‘stuff’ of credentialisation (exam scripts, certificates, marketing materials and banners). Our definition of materialities is, of course, not limited to these examples. Alongside this focus on the material is a concomitant interest in mobilities and place; how education is constituted in and through mobilities (from the smallest to the most extensive) and is also embedded in various places. Again, we welcome papers that think through mobilities and place/space in an expansive way.

We welcome both theoretical and more empirically-focused papers, and abstract submissions from ECRs as well as from more established scholars. We encourage participation from those working in sociology, education and geography as well as in cognate disciplines.

Please send abstracts of 200 words to Johanna ( by Monday 6th November. The event is free to attend, although places are limited on a first come, first served basis. Please email Johanna ( or Rachel ( to register.

Convenors: Johanna Waters (University of Oxford) & Rachel Brooks (University of Surrey); Sponsored by the Transformations: Economy, Society and Place research cluster (SoGE)

Materialities and Mobilities in Education

The new book I have written with Johanna Waters will be published in a few weeks. Below we have pasted a few details about the book as a whole, and the list of contents. We are particularly grateful to Ravinder Sidhu, of the University of Queensland, who kindly wrote the Afterword for us.

Materialities and Mobilities in Education develops new arguments about the ways in which educational processes can be analysed. Drawing on a recent interest in mobilities across the social sciences, and a conterminous resurgence in academic accounts of materialities, the book demonstrates how these two ostensibly differing perspectives on education might be fruitfully deployed in tandem.  Considering the interaction and convergence of materialities and mobilities, the book highlights the relationship between structural constraints and opportunities and the agency of individuals, providing a unique and essential insight into contemporary education.

Examining a range of education spaces from the formal to the informal and the different types of mobility that manifest in relation to education, the book introduces readers to a range of theoretical resources and detailed case studies used to analyse the spatiality of education from across the disciplines of human geography, education and sociology.


Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 2: The materiality of education

Chapter 3: Buildings and bodies

Chapter 4: Mobilities in education: movement and flows

Chapter 5: Transnational (educational) mobilities

Chapter 6: The convergence of materiality and movement

Chapter 7: Convergence within urban education

Afterword (by Ravinder Sidhu)



CfP: Constructing the HE student: understanding spatial variations

Call for Papers: Symposium on ‘Constructing the higher education student: understanding spatial variations’, Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference, 29th August-1st September 2017

I am delighted to be organising a symposium with Johanna Waters (University of Oxford) at the RGS-IBG conference later this year (abstract below). This is sponsored by the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group (of the Royal Geographical Society), and linked to the EuroStudents research project.

If you would like to take part in the symposium, please send me an abstract by noon on 13th February for consideration (

Many scholars have argued that, in contemporary society, higher education policy and practice have both been profoundly changed by globalising pressures. Indeed, some have contended that the state’s capacity to control education has been significantly limited by the growth of both international organisations and transnational companies (Ball, 2007) and that the three traditional models of university education in Europe (Humboldtian, Napoleonic and Anglo-Saxon) have been replaced by a single Anglo-American model, characterised by, inter alia, competition, marketisation, decentralisation and a focus on entrepreneurial activity. Nevertheless, this analysis is not universally held. For example, not all European nations have sought to establish elite universities or maximise revenue through attracting international students, and significant differences remain in the way in which higher education is funded. In explaining such variations, scholars have pointed to differences in political dynamics, politico-administrative structures and intellectual traditions, as well as the flexibility and mutability of neo-liberal ideas themselves. However, research to date has focussed primarily on the extent of convergence (or divergence) with respect to top-level policies; as a result, little work has explored the perspectives of social actors, nor the ways in which policy may be ‘enacted’ locally, in ways that diverge from formal policy documents.

In this session we intend to bring together papers that explore the ways in which ‘the higher education student’ is constructed across different spatial contexts. We are keen to include papers that draw on data derived from students themselves, as well as from other social actors (such as the media, policymakers and higher education staff). We anticipate that they will speak to debates about what it means to be a young person within the contemporary university, as well as to those that relate more specifically to the geographies of higher education.

The global(ised) rise of student politics and protest?

The first decade and a half of the 21st century have witnessed protests by students across the globe. They have occurred in places as diverse as Germany (2009-2013), California (2009), Chile (2010-13) and Canada (2012), as well as those that happened in London (most famously in 2010, but also again, in 2016). Social commentators have speculated whether this is part of a worldwide trend, in which students are taking on the activist identity of the 1960s. Some have also asked whether student protest has now become globalised – pointing to the rise of student movements in a relatively short and concentrated period of time, and also the way in which social media has appeared to galvanise students across disparate geographical locations. Indeed, it is notable that the Twitter hashtag #RhodesMustFall, which originated in South Africa, was taken up with considerable energy by students in the UK. Moreover, some researchers have argued that new technologies have ushered in new forms of political activity, which rarely respect national borders.

However, until recently, we have had relatively little empirical evidence upon which to assess claims that student politics and protest have become ‘globalised’, and to explore the extent to which student activism, across the globe, has taken up similar forms and can be seen as part of the same network. Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives, published recently, aims to intervene directly into this debate, by bringing together contemporary research from diverse geographical contexts.

It provides evidence of some strong commonalities across the globe. A number of authors show, for example, that student protest in one nation-state has been directly influenced by protest in another – the ‘umbrella movement’ in Hong Kong had important links to the ‘sunflower movement’ in neighbouring Taiwan, for example. Similarly, across many European nations there is a strong (student) commitment to protecting a ‘free’ higher education (i.e. one funded by the state rather than through fees) – which has galvanised protest in Germany and elsewhere. Furthermore, numerous contributions to the book, drawing on very different national contexts (such as Chile, Denmark and Italy), discuss the prevalence of market-driven reform and how this has frequently been a spur to action on the part of students. The chapters also demonstrate how students are now increasingly aware of what is happening beyond their own national borders, making use of new technologies to network with others and publicise their concerns.

Nevertheless, the book also demonstrates that the influence of the nation-state endures, raising important questions about claims that student protest has now become ‘globalised’. Students have not, for example, all been motivated by a common opposition to market-based reform. Those involved in the Gezi Resistance in Turkey, for example, were motivated instead by their opposition to what they perceived to be the conservative and paternalistic orientation of their national government. Moreover, student protests in Hong Kong focussed on processes of ‘mainlandization’ by the Chinese government (i.e. the subtle convergence taking place between Hong Kong and mainland China).

Perhaps one of the most interesting cross-national differences highlighted by the book is the variation in the way in which students have organised in different contexts. Here, the comparison between Denmark and the UK is particularly revealing. In Denmark, students – opposed to the increasing marketization of public services – have performed politics in three contrasting ways. The first group of protestors, which included the Danish National Union of Students, focussed primarily on representation and pursuing parliamentary routes, believing this to be the most effective means of securing change. A second group contested this assumption and chose to mobilise instead, demonstrating in the streets and taking other forms of direct action. The third group were committed to ‘prefigurative politics’, i.e. enacting what they believed to be a new form of political practice. Importantly, however, Danish students appeared to accept these different kinds of political performance, and the politically pragmatic stance of the Danish National Union of Students did not become a source of contention. As those familiar with the UK context may perhaps be aware, student politics has not operated in the same way here. Indeed, two of the chapters of Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives that focus specifically on the 2010 protests against fee increases in England highlight the divided nature of student activism. The UK’s National Union of Students was split between those advocating a radical stance, opposing any form of student contribution to the cost of tuition fees, and those who believed that conceding the principle of contribution was necessary if the organisation was to have any real influence among policymakers. Fundamental differences about ‘the best way to be a political actor’ underpinned this divide. A bitter conflict over tactics developed among activists, with leftist groups coming to define themselves largely in opposition to the pragmatic stance adopted by the leadership of the National Union of Students.

National differences are also evident in responses to student protest. Contrasts are draw in the book between the conciliatory responses of Italian university leaders and the more repressive position adopted by their UK counterparts. The book explains these differences by pointing to the wider higher education sector in both countries and, in particular, forms of governance. Italian leaders tend to be elected from among their colleagues, and thus need to sustain good relationships with students in order to maintain their institutional authority. In contrast, UK leaders are appointed rather than elected and, as a result, are less reliant on the goodwill of students; they are also motivated to minimise potential ‘reputational damage’ brought about by drawn-out student protest, and so seek to end protest quickly.

This evidence, provided by detailed empirical research across the world, suggests that claims of a ‘globalised’ form of student protest are premature; national differences remain significant. Nevertheless, the various chapters of Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives also point to the vibrancy of political activity by students in many different contexts: although the foci of protest, methods employed and societal responses may differ, students have again, at the start of the 21st century, assumed the role of significant political actors.

This blog first appeared on the WonkHE website on 29th November 2016.

Student leadership & politics seminar

On Tuesday, we’re running a seminar on Student Leadership and Politics at the University of Surrey. Lorenzo Cini, from the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, and Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela from the Centre for Advanced Research in Education at the University of Chile, will each be giving a paper on their recent research on student politics (see abstracts below), and Alex MacKenzie-Smith, the current president of the University of Surrey’s Students’ Union, will be acting as a discussant.

The seminar will run from 3-4pm in 32MS01 – and all are welcome to attend. Do come along if you’re interested!

Student Activism in Contemporary Italian Universities


My presentation sheds light on and assesses the strategies that the Italian student activists adopted in order to influence the revision process of the governance structure of their universities in 2011. Which kind of strategy has enabled these activists to influence successfully this process? My argument is that the choice to build a coalition with other actors and/or to promote “institutional activists” (Santoro and McGuire 1997) within the governing boards and committees facilitates the adoption of student demands and, therefore, their influence. The “power of the streets” exerted by the “outsiders,” combined with the institutional power of the “insiders,” produces a significant amplifying effect in the governing bodies. University leaders fear this kind of alliance, as they perceive that insiders with a strong tie with other actors are the expression of a collective voice that is difficult to neutralize. These insiders act on the behalf of a collective group, which supports them politically and physically in the confrontation with the university management. On the other hand, the outsiders are also aware that their collective strength is more likely to be translated into institutional power and action from their allies and/or representatives.

Biographical note:

Lorenzo Cini is a current research fellow at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. He has a PhD degree in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute of Florence, conducting his research on the contentious politics of higher education in Italy and England. More notably, he investigated the array of university mobilizations emerged in England and Italy in opposition to the recent neoliberal reforms on higher education. On this topic, he has published several articles and chapter contributions in edited volumes and journals. Over the past five years, he has also carried out research in the field of political philosophy and theory by working on the concepts of democracy, justice and equality. On these topics, he recently published the book, Civil Society and Radical Democracy (2012), and, in collaboration with Professor Brunella Casalini, the volume of political philosophy on Justice, Equality, and Difference. A Guide to the Reading of Contemporary Political Philosophy (2012).

The Chilean university student movement as an expression of student leadership: challenges for the future


In Chile, during the 70s and the 80s, the Pinochet regime adopted a neoliberal approach that undermined the role of state in all sort of public policies, including education (Taylor, 2002). Particularly, in higher education this kind of approach promoted the privatization of the system and students became customers having to pay a high cost for their education, usually by getting into debt. Although the democratic system returned in the 90s, public policies implemented by subsequent governments (most of them left-oriented) reinforced this model. It was not until 2011 when the first signs of unrest appeared among citizens and university students took on a decisive leadership role to challenge the state of things. In doing so, students protested in the streets for several years and used mass media and technologies to promote their ‘quality public education for everybody’ banner. They have also been able to obtain several parliamentary seats for former student leaders, and prompt a reform agenda in higher education that is currently in the parliament. As a result, the student movement has become an agentic field in its own right (Guzmán-Valenzuela, 2017). In this presentation, I analyse the Chilean student movement identifying forms of both individual and collective leadership.

Biographical note:

Dr. Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Education at the University of Chile. She conducts research in the field of higher education with a particular interest in the impact of neoliberal regimes on the contemporary university.  She has won national research grants and collaborates with different research international networks in higher education. She has published in leading journals and books on topics such as academic identity, the public role of universities and teaching practices. She also works in the theorization of the use of qualitative methodologies in education.

Student Politics and Protest – now published

spp-bookStudent Politics and Protest: International Perspectives has now been published as part of the Routledge/Society for Research into Higher Education series on Research into Higher Education. It provides the first book-length analysis of student politics within contemporary higher education, comprising contributions from a wide variety of different countries and addressing questions such as:

What roles do students’ unions play in politics today?
How successful are students in bringing about change?
In what ways are students engaged in politics and protest in contemporary society?
How does such engagement differ by national context?

Its thirteen chapters explore a number of common themes, including: the focus and nature of student politics and protest; 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.

We will be running several events to open up discussion about some of the topics covered in the book, including a seminar at the University of Surrey on 29th November, and a symposium (and formal launch of the book) at the SRHE annual conference  from 7-9th December.

Call for papers: Educational Futures and Fractures

The University of Strathclyde is organising a great-looking (free) conference, to be held on 24th February 2017 on ‘Educational Futures and Fractures’. The call for papers is posted below, and the deadline is 30 September.

This conference is driven by a central concern with educational futures, asking what, who and where is the future of Higher Education?  It will focus on transitions in undergraduate, postgraduate and academic staff flows and trajectories, asking what people and places are rendered (im)mobile, what fractures persist as educational fault-lines reconstituting inequalities across time and place, race and ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality? What alternative futures might be claimed amidst educational pressures, economic pressures, competitiveness and ‘failures’? What kinds of teaching practices, politics and activism, might resist the further stratification of educational futures? Conference papers will explore the following themes:

Border pedagogy

Altered borders: creations, transcendences, inventions, repositionings and fortifications
Defining and contesting social, cultural and political boundaries for social-educational change
Symbolic and territorial borders across educational spaces
Multi-raciality and mixedness

Educational Activisms

(Im)mobilities inside-outside academia
Embodied inter-subjectivity in research-activist encounters
Embodiment and pedagogies
Community education and activism


Migrant movements, migrating capital
Accreditation, diploma recognition and capacity building
Institutional prestige, mobilities, constraints

Queer Liminalities

Queer educational agency, ‘failures’ and ‘no’ future?
Sexuality and (trans)gender borders within and beyond the classroom
Safety, visibility, and diversity, decolonization, and co-option/incorporation on campus

Keynote speaker: Dr Rowena Arshad OBE, University of Edinburgh

Confirmed speakers include: Dr Maddie Breeze, Queen Margaret University; Prof. Rachel Brooks, University of Surrey; Dr Cristina Costa, University of Strathclyde; Dr Amy Pressland; Dr Rachel Thwaites, Canterbury Christ Church University; Dr Paul Wakeling, University of York.

Please send abstracts (200-300 words) saving as initial_surname (e.g. Y_Taylor) and a brief bio (100 words) to: by Friday 30th September

The materiality of university campuses: the role and significance of students’ union buildings

27724059062_7d5f58b203In the literature on higher education, there is an increasing emphasis on the importance of virtual spaces in terms of both pedagogic practice and wider aspects of university life. It has also been argued that online spaces, and social media in particular, are playing a key role in facilitating the political engagement of students. In our research on contemporary students’ unions, however, much greater emphasis was placed by our respondents (students’ union officials and senior institutional managers) upon the physical spaces of the campus than on the virtual spaces available to students and/or students’ union officials for both academic and social activities. Indeed, the students’ union building itself was discussed, at great length, by many of the students’ union officials and senior managers who participated in our focus groups. Several respondents described how changes had recently been made to the buildings used by the students’ union, which, they claimed, had had a positive effect. For senior managers at one of our higher education institutions (HEIs), for example, a shift to a more central location on campus was thought to have had a significant influence on the visibility of the union, and the propensity of others to engage with it:

It’s much more visible, the [students’ union] is just a much more open place, it’s more centrally located, it’s better connected with other parts of the university. It’s actually a place where people are wanting, not just the students, but people want to do things in it. And I think, so it’s more valued by the university than the temporary place that was there before. And I suppose that, the effect on the student unions it’s just to make its business, its existence much more public…..I think that’s made a big difference because the student union is far more visible, not just for students, but it’s also visible for staff as well.

Similarly, union officials at another HEI claimed that the improvement in the union’s space – making it more open and welcoming – had had a direct impact on its use:

We have had this fantastic space this year, so we have been able to even engage with people that don’t have problems, all they want to do is to find a nice place to sit … To chill out, yeah. … and to play Scrabble and to …. You know the glass front, when you first walked in, that used to be a brick wall with a little window, could knock on and speak to someone in reception in the corridor.  So it wasn’t even nice sort of …It was awful.

In these accounts, an emphasis on the materiality of the campus is clearly evident. In particular, the nature and location of the students’ union building is claimed to have a direct impact on the extent to which the wider student body engages (or does not engage) with the union.

Although there is currently little academic research on the role of students’ unions in the UK, a notable exception is that carried by Andersson and colleagues, which analysed the role of the union as part of a broader project that examined ‘geographies of encounter’ between different social groups at a UK HEI. They argue that while, in theory, the students’ union can be seen as a key arena for bringing students from different backgrounds together to pursue a range of social, political and leisure activities, in practice, the increasingly commodified nature of union activity militates against social mixing. Here, they point to the impact of unions letting out space to private enterprises, which then often offer a range of highly-gendered commercial activities (such as beauty salons, hairdressers and nightclubs). The students’ union, in their analysis, is a space in which students from diverse backgrounds are ‘thrown together’ but which does not take the shape of a Habermasian, egalitarian ‘public sphere’; instead it is a space that is heavily mediated by commercial interests, and tends to reinforce some forms of inequality.

Our data, however, suggest a more complex reading of the spaces of students’ union, and a more ambivalent relationship between unions and processes of commodification. Although commercial activities on campus were clearly important to senior managers and were valued by some students’ unions as means of preserving some independence (through having an income stream in addition to the block grant from their institution), in none of our ten case studies were they viewed (either by managers or union officers) as the key focus of the union’s activity. We suggest that market pressures on universities (such as competition with other institutions, and the emergence of various ranking systems) have caused unions to place less emphasis, rather than more, on their commercial activities, which, in turn, has implications for the physical spaces that students’ unions occupy. While HEIs are clearly concerned with revenue generation and ensuring financial sustainability in an increasingly competitive higher education market, the importance of measures of ‘student satisfaction’ in stimulating demand for courses has encouraged senior managers to work closely with their students’ union and, often, to value highly the contributions unions can make to improving the quality of ‘the student experience’ and ensuring ‘the student voice’ is represented effectively.

Such pressures have encouraged unions to foreground their representative function, often at the expense of campaigning activities and also, in many cases, to the detriment of commercial ventures. This has, inevitably, had a direct impact on the use of physical space on campus, with a decline in the number of bars and clubs. The same pressures have also been an important driver of institutional investment in the physical infrastructure of students’ unions – particularly a desire to increase the visibility and use of the union by the wider student body. Indeed, union officers in our research believed they had been ‘rewarded’ by investment in their buildings for their support of university priorities. In some cases, respondents also linked this type of investment to the substantial increase in tuition fees for domestic students in England and Wales from 2012 onwards:

And my view is that the university’s very much aware of the fact that the fees have gone up to £9,000 … and they’re very keen to invest in facilities for students and provide additional resource to support the student experience, and [the union is] very good at actually tailoring their message to sort of like address that particular lead. (Senior managers’ focus group)

Nevertheless, our data indicate that while institutional investment in students’ unions buildings may have had a positive impact on both the use and visibility of union space, it was not always entirely unproblematic. Indeed, some of the factors that had motivated the investment were also those that created tensions. For example, one group of students’ union officers described a struggle over the extent to which the union should look similar to the rest of the university and an insistence by senior management that they should use the same colour schemes and branding. Such tensions provide support for those who have argued that university campuses are often ‘paradoxical spaces’ in which competing, and sometimes contradictory, discourses prevail – in this case, the marketization of higher education appears to have substantially limited students’ unions’ focus on commercial activity.


This post first appeared on the Surrey Sociology blog in August 2016. A fuller account of this research is given in this article.

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.