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and that the three traditional models of university education in Europe (Humboldtian, Napoleonic and Anglo-Saxon) have been replaced by a single Anglo-American model, characterised by, inter alia, competition, marketisation, decentralisation and a focus on entrepreneurial activity.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.

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.