Conference presentations this week

We’re having a busy time presenting our work at conferences this week. Anu and Jessie are presenting a paper on the construction of students in English newspapers and policy documents, as well as by students themselves, at the European Sociological Association in Athens. (The abstract of their paper can be found here.) Predrag is also presenting at the ESA – on the construction of students in university websites across Europe. (His abstract is here.)

Rachel has organised a two-part symposium (on spatial variations in the construction of higher education students) at the Royal Geographical Society’s annual conference – to be held on Friday. As part of this, she’ll be giving a paper on her analysis of English policy documents. More details about the symposium can be found here.

At the start of the week, Predrag was at the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers’ annual conference at Jyväskylä in Finland – again talking about his analysis of university websites across Europe.

Using creative and visual methods in comparative research: a one-day seminar

We’re delighted to announce that we have received funding from the International Journal of Social Research Methodology to run a one-day seminar on the use of creative and visual methods in comparative research during the 2017-18 academic year.

Increasing use is made of both creative and visual methods in social research. Nevertheless, to date there has been very little discussion of the extent to which such methods can be used in comparative research. Our seminar will explore some of the challenges of using these methods cross-nationally, examining the different cultural associations that may be brought to bear in different national contexts, and how these are accounted for in research design, data collection and analysis. It will also draw on the experiences of researchers working in this area, to explore how such challenges can most effectively be addressed.

We’ll be issuing a call for papers later in the year, and more details will appear on this website.


Symposium at RGS-IBG annual conference

We are delighted that our proposal for a symposium at the Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers Annual Conference (29th August-1st September 2017) has been accepted. The title of the symposium is ‘Constructing the higher education student: understanding spatial variations’ and the abstract can be found here. We have organised it with Johanna Waters (University of Oxford) and it is sponsored by the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group (of the Royal Geographical Society).

The symposium will be in two parts, and comprises the following papers:

Part 1

Constructing ‘spaces’ of student friendship: understanding the socio-spatial co-production of friendship in UK university halls of residences (Mark Holton, Plymouth University, UK)

Cohortness and more-than-neoliberal subjectivities: (mis)fitting into student life (Peter Kraftl, University of Birmingham, UK and Gavin Brown, University of Leicester, UK)

Black and minority ethnic experiences of a university campus in northern England (Graeme Mearns and Peter Hopkins, University of Newcastle, UK)

The role of the university – and therefore the student? (Richard Budd, Liverpool Hope University, UK)

The construction and spatial positioning of higher education students in English policy documents (Rachel Brooks, University of Surrey, UK)

Part 2

Constructing the international student in UK policy: the neocolonial subject (Sylvie Lomer, University of Manchester, UK)

A critical analysis of the Palestinian educational student im/mobility: motivation, challenges and identities (Nancy Amoudi, Leeds Beckett University, UK)

Academic mobility and precarity: study abroad as escape or emplacement among political actors (Rika Theo and Maggi Leung, Utrecht University, The Netherlands)

Implementing Study-to-work Policies for International Students in Switzerland: To what Extent are Federal Policies Re-interpreted at the Local Level? (Yvonne Riano, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland)

The meaning of discipline in constructing the implied student in higher education (Lene Møller Madsen, Lars Ulriksen and Henriette Tolstrup Holmegaard, University of Copenhagen, Denmark)

Do come along and join us!

Paper at BSA annual conference

Jessie and Rachel are looking forward to giving a paper based on some initial findings from the project at the BSA annual conference at the start of April. They will draw on their analysis of English policy documents (from government, staff and student unions and employers’ organisations) and nine focus groups with English undergraduates (see abstract below). This forms part of a symposium we have organised on ‘Constructing the higher education student and graduate’.

The choices and aspirations of higher education students in England

Within a climate of increased university tuition fees, students have arguably become increasingly constructed as ‘consumers’. For example, in England, the recent radical changes to HE funding are predicated upon the assumption that prospective students will: see a degree as a private investment (rather than a public good); be prepared to accumulate significant debt in order to acquire it; and actively ‘shop around’, comparing institutions and courses to secure the ‘best’ possible education (BIS, 2011). However the extent to which contemporary students understand their role within the institution and how this compares to policy constructions is yet to be fully explored. This paper draws upon early data collected as part of the five year European Research Council-funded ‘Eurostudents’ project to explore the extent to which there is congruence between these constructions in policy and amongst students themselves. We focus in particular on constructions and narratives of ‘choice’ and ‘aspiration’ of higher education students in England. Firstly, we analyse the ways in which decision-making processes are constructed in contemporary policy documents, including the white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (DBIS, 2016), which provides the basis for the Higher Education Bill currently passing through parliament. Secondly, we consider the extent to which these constructions are shared by students themselves, using data from focus groups in a diverse sample of higher education institutions. We explore whether students contest these constructions and/or offer their own alternatives. A key aspect of our analysis – across both the policy documents and focus groups – is the extent to which differences between students (and associated structural inequalities) are acknowledged and addressed.

CfP: Constructing the higher education 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

Rachel is organising a symposium with Johanna Waters (University of Oxford) (abstract below). This is sponsored by the Geographies of Children, Youth and Families Research Group (of the Royal Geographical Society).

Please send abstracts to Rachel by noon on 13th February for consideration for this session:

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.

Launch seminar – second keynote address

We are delighted that Johanna Waters, associate professor of human geography at the University of Oxford, will be giving the second keynote address at our launch seminar on 21 September. The abstract of her talk is given below.

Biopolitics and the ‘making’ of the unexceptional student: some geographical reflections on education in East Asia

This paper deals directly with the question of how contemporary students are ‘made’, with a focus on biopolitical processes.  In East Asia, children’s education has variously been described as an ‘imperative’, as a ‘fever’ and an ‘obsession’ amongst the populace. It is given a status, arguably, that is unsurpassed in any other geographical context. Specific technologies, that include high profile public examinations, serve to create particular subject identities, separating the successful from the unsuccessful student. These student identities have far-reaching and potentially profound implications; individuals are often perceived of as having failed ‘morally’ as well as ‘academically’. In this paper, I consider what options are available for individuals who have ‘failed’ to access higher education in the conventional way, drawing on research from two projects that have explored different aspects of students’ spatial (im)mobilities in/from Hong Kong. In one scenario, failing students ‘exit’ the system altogether and seek HE overseas; in another, students obtain HE through continuing education colleges and subsequently pursue ‘non-local’ degree programmes. In both cases, students are able somehow to disrupt the biopolitical production of ‘local’ student identities, offering, in the process, a form of political resistance to dominant ‘meritocratic’ ideologies.

Launch Seminar – abstract for keynote address

We are very pleased that Michael Tomlinson, of the University of Southampton, will be giving one of the two keynote addresses at our launch seminar on 21st September. Michael’s talk will be entitled Student Experience in Context: higher education policy and the changing value of university education and we have pasted the abstract below.

‘This presentation will provide an overview of current trends and developments in higher education and their implications for student experience. The paper explores a variety of contextual and structural changes within and around higher education, including: massification, the move towards market-driven policy, the changing economic context for graduates and the continued socio-cultural divisions within the student population. The presentation will explore some of the main policy frameworks in place in UK higher education, their antecedents and potential consequences. One of the subtexts to recent HE policy has been the framing of contemporary students as rational choice-markers, consumers and self-disciplining agents who should hold their institutions to greater account. Recent policy frameworks have explicitly framed the value of higher education in almost exclusively utilitarian and performative terms (i.e. ‘value for money’, employability development etc). Drawing upon the speaker’s and other researchers’ critical insights in this field, the paper will consider some of the impacts of these changes have on student experience and the different ways in which students are positioned, and position themselves, in HE. This will include the contentious problem of the student-as-consumer and the way in which the value of higher education is framed.’

If you would like to join us on the 21st, for a day of stimulating papers, do register for a place here.

Seminar programme


Wednesday, 21st September 2016; University of Surrey, LTJ, Lecture Theatre Block


09.30-10.00, Registration

10.00-10.15, Welcome and overview of the ‘EuroStudents’ project: Rachel Brooks, University of Surrey

10.15-11.15, Keynote presentation: Michael Tomlinson, University of Southampton

Student Experience in Context: higher education policy and the changing value of university education

11.15-11.30, Break

11.30-13.00, Parallel sessions

Session A: LTJ

Spatial and social (im)mobilities through higher education: Michael Donnelly, University of Bath

Students in cities – the everyday mobilities of contemporary UK students: Mark Holton, Plymouth University and Kirsty Finn, Lancaster University

‘Talent-spotting’? Inequality, cultural sorting and constructions of the ideal employable graduate: Nicola Ingram, Lancaster University and Kim Allen, University of Leeds

Session B: LTF

Her majesty the student: marketised higher education and the narcissistic (dis)satisfactions of the student-consumer: Elizabeth Nixon, Richard Scullion and Robert Hearn, University of Nottingham

The student-as-consumer versus the student-as-learner: some preliminary findings from the UK: Stefanie Sonnenberg, University of Portsmouth

Understanding the student experience: Rachel Spacey and Mary Stuart, University of Lincoln

13.00-14.00, Lunch

14.00-15.30, Parallel sessions

Session C: LTJ

Unreasonable rage, disobedient dissent: the social construction of student activists through media and institutional discourses in the United Kingdom: Jessica Gagnon, University of Portsmouth

‘I am completely uninterested in politics’: ‘Filial nationalism’ and ‘rational patriotism’ as mainland Chinese students’ political orientations in Hong Kong: Cora Lingling Xu, University of Cambridge

Understanding the contemporary HE student: ‘It’s like a bubble. You just get sucked in’: Grace Sykes, Northampton University

Session D: LTF

How institutional doxa an shape choice within higher education: Jon Rainford, Staffordshire University

Contemporary students’ rights: a discursive strategy to overcome hysteresis in a post-92 HE setting: Karl Baker-Green and Cinnamon Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University

Paradoxes of the academisation process: a sociological exploration of the history of foreign and classical language education since 1864: Eric Lybeck, University of Exeter

15.30-15.45, Break

15.45-16.45, Keynote presentation: Johanna Waters, University of Oxford 

Biopolitics and the ‘making’ of the unexceptional student: some geographical reflections on education in East Asia

16.45-17.00, Concluding comments

To attend the seminar, please register here. (There is a small charge of £30.)

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Launch seminar



Wednesday, 21st September 2016, University of Surrey

Keynote speakers: Anna Mountford-Zimdars (King’s College London) and Michael Tomlinson (University of Southampton)

There is some evidence that, at least within countries with neo-liberal welfare regimes, students are constructed largely as consumers with contemporary policy texts. However, there is less consensus about whether or not students have taken up such an identity. Some scholars have assumed that this construction of student-as-consumer is having a profound effect on how students themselves approach HE. Indeed, Molesworth et al. (2009) contend that the inculcation of a consumer identity has brought about a more passive approach to learning, in which students place much more emphasis on their rights rather than their responsibilities, and on having a degree rather than being a learner. Others have, however, argued that, despite the increasing recourse to the language of economics in policy documents (in which students are positioned as consumers and universities as providers), in practice, the behaviour of students does not conform to this model (Dodds, 2011; Williams, 2013). Moreover, research has suggested that such identities may be differentiated by socio-economic characteristics, with only more affluent groups having the capacity to ‘shop around’, unencumbered by financial concerns or the ‘identity risks’ of moving away from home.

This one-day seminar will provide an opportunity to explore our current understandings of the contemporary higher education student, and the extent to which they are shaped by, for example, policymakers, the media, higher education staff and students themselves. Papers may focus on one or more of the following: the impact of tuition fees on understandings of what it means to be a student; students as consumers; media representations of students; students as political actors; policymakers’ understandings of students; and cross-national comparisons. However, other topics, relevant to the seminar theme, are also welcome.

Abstract Submission: Please send abstracts of up to 250 words by 13th May 2016 to Rachel Brooks at the University of Surrey: (There will be a small charge of £30 for attending the seminar.) You can book a place here.

Seminar Organisers: The seminar is organised by Rachel Brooks and colleagues in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. It will help to launch the five-year ‘EuroStudents’ research project based at Surrey, which investigates understandings of the higher education student across six different European countries.

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