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.

Symposium at BSA 2017 conference

We are delighted that our proposal for a symposium at the BSA annual conference in 2017 has been accepted. It will focus on ‘Constructions of the higher education student and graduate’ and include presentations from Katy Vigurs, Johanna Waters, Kim Allen and Nicola Ingram, as well as from the Eurostudents team. The symposium abstract is as follows:

Education, and in particular higher education (HE) is often constructed as the great equaliser of life chances, and an important vehicle for social mobility. However, within the contemporary landscape – with an increasingly global ‘higher education market’ and the repositioning of higher education as a private (rather than public) good – traditional forms of inequality arguably appear magnified. This special session brings together work from four different research projects, investigating what it means to be a contemporary HE student or graduate in England and East Asia, and how these roles are being transformed through particular policy pressures. Overall the session seeks to explore the following broad questions: What does it mean to be a student in HE today? How does the conception of the HE student differ from policy to practice? How does the discourse around education and meritocracy construct some young people as ‘failures’? In a contemporary context of increased tuition fees and debt, how are young people navigating the graduate labour market? What are the mechanisms through which graduates today become identified as ‘ideal’ and ‘employable’ candidates? To what extent are inequalities of class, race and gender being reproduced through these contemporary constructions of students and graduates? To what extent do we see variation across different national contexts?

Paper at SRHE conference

We are looking forward to giving the first proper paper from our project at the Society for Research into Higher Education’s annual conference in early December. It’s entitled ‘Constructing the Higher Education Student in Europe’ and the abstract is given below.

Higher education is of considerable importance to policymakers across Europe. Indeed, it is viewed as a key mechanism for achieving a range of economic, social and political goals. Nevertheless, despite this prominence within policy, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which conceptualisations of ‘the student’ are shared across the continent. To start to redress this gap, this paper explores four key aspects of contemporary higher education students’ lives, considering the extent to which they can be considered as, variously, consumers, workers, family members and political actors. On the basis of this evidence, it argues that, despite assumptions on the part of European policymakers that there are now large commonalities in the experiences of students across Europe – evident in pronouncements about Erasmus mobility and the operations of the European Higher Education Area – significant differences exist both between, and within, individual nation-states.

If you’re attending the SRHE conference, please do come along to our session – it’s on 7th December at 12.45pm.

Welcome to members of our advisory group

We are delighted that the following people have agreed to join our Advisory Group:

Barbara Kehm, Professor of Leadership and International Strategic Development in Higher Education, University of Glasgow, UK

Lea Meister, President of the European Students’ Union

Maria Slowey, Professor and Director of Higher Education Research and Development, Dublin City University, Ireland

Aina Tarabini, Senior Lecturer in Sociology of Education, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain

Carlos Vargas-Tamez, Senior Project Officer, Education Research and Foresight Unit, UNESCO

Susan Wright, Professor, Danish School of Education, Aarhus University, Denmark

Films and TV shows featuring students

One of the four strands of our research focuses on analysing the ways in which students are constructed in the media in our six case study countries (England, Denmark, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Spain). We will be analysing newspaper articles and also popular TV shows and films that feature higher education students in a prominent manner.

We are keen to put together a resource of relevant TV shows and films – for our own benefit, but hopefully it will be of use to others as well. Paul Greatrix has done a good job identifying some sources, that will be familiar to a UK audience, including a dozen which he thinks it’s best to avoid. However, we hope to include media from other European countries in our list.

If you have some suggestions, please do get in touch with us. We’ll compile all the nominated films and TV shows into one list, which we’ll post here in due course (and thank all those who have contributed). Many thanks!

Welcome to the research team

We are very pleased that all members of the EuroStudents research team have now started work on the project. Here are some brief introductions to the researchers….

Jessie Abrahams is one of the post-doctoral research fellows on the project, working in particular on the student understandings strand. She is in the final stages of an ESRC-funded PhD at Cardiff University looking at the way in which the English secondary education system reproduces social class inequalities through its structures and practices. Prior to this, Jessie was a research assistant on the Leverhulme Trust-funded Paired Peers Project exploring the experiences of students from different social class backgrounds at the University of Bristol and UWE Bristol.

Predrag Lažetić is also a post-doctoral fellow on the project and he is responsible for the institutional perspectives strand of research. He is the final stages of his PhD work at the University of Bath investigating the institutional regime differences in the quality of jobs higher education graduates undertake in different European countries. Prior to this post he worked as the director of the Centre for Education Policy in Belgrade and as a researcher in the International Centre for Higher Education Research in Kassel, Germany, specialising in both posts in higher education research.

Anu Lainio is a postgraduate researcher on the project and is leading the media representations strand of work. Anu did her first master’s in education in University of Tampere. She studied her second master’s in Erasmus Mundus programme on Lifelong Learning: Policy and Management in Aarhus University (Copenhagen) and Deusto University (Bilbao). Anu also has a several years working experience in higher education administration and in international relations. Her research interests are in internationalisation of higher education, mobility, social justice and equality.

Launch seminar – final programme

We’re really looking forward to the seminar to launch the EuroStudents project, which will be held next Wednesday at the University of Surrey. The final programme is posted below. If you aren’t able to come along, but would like to take part in the discussions, do follow the seminar on Twitter. We’ll be using the hashtag #HEstudents.


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


09.30-10.00: Coffee and registration

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

10.15-11.15: Keynote presentation: LTJ (Chair: Rachel Brooks)

Student Experience in Context: higher education policy and the changing value of university education, Michael Tomlinson, University of Southampton

11.15-11.30: Break

11.30-13.00: Parallel sessions

Session A: LTJ (Chair: Johanna Waters)

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 (Chair: Steve Woodfield)

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, University of Lincoln

13.00-14.00: Lunch

14.00-15.30: Parallel sessions

Session C: LTJ (Chair: Kim Allen)

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

‘It’s always a good decision to go to University because if you don’t you’ll end up becoming a cleaner or a supermarket worker’, Jessie Abrahams, University of Surrey/Cardiff University

The changing nature of students’ unions; young people as political actors?, Rachel Brooks, University of Surrey

Session D: LTF (Chair: Alex Seal)

How institutional doxa can 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: LTJ (Chair: Jessie Abrahams)

Biopolitics and the ‘making’ of the unexceptional student: some geographical reflections on education in East Asia, Johanna Waters, University of Oxford

16.45-17.00     Concluding comments





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.