Should SUs elect a working class officer?

Students’ unions in the UK have long had “liberation” officers – focussed around Women, LGBT+, Disabled and BaME students.

And as long as these officers and campaigns have existed, there have been debates – about the validity of “identity politics”, whether it “ghettoises” the issues and the students involved, and who should be able to part in these usually autonomous parts of SUs.

When I arrived at York an interesting new angle – whether there should be an officer for “working class” students – was being hotly debated. A whirlwind of enthusiastic students argued about, amongst other things, the definitional complexities of “working class” and whether a representative role based on class identity would serve to break down or exacerbate class divisions.

For many involved, the referendum period surrounding the proposal was defined by tensions and complaints from both sides – most notably, an attempt to smear the leader of the pro Working Class Officer campaign. At the time, I chalked this down to pettiness, a touch of party politics and a desire to win at all costs. I now see why this was more than a bit of mudslinging for students on the receiving end.

The personal slights amounted to character attacks, leaving the students involved feeling compelled to defend their character – represented as having the “wrong attitudes” and saying the “wrong things”. It reminded us that universities, especially “elite” ones, can be sites of exclusion for working class students.

Ironically, the mudslinging made the case for working class representation all the more compelling, shining a light on systemic challenges and fuelling the belief among its advocates that a Working Class Officer was needed to platform and challenge class inequalities at York.

Building a working class students’ network

In February last year, we elected our first Working Class Officers at YUSU – Connor Drake and Sean Price-Regan.

Whilst we were excited about joining SUs such as Manchester and LSE in electing “Working Class Officers”, we were nervous too. Would students find it patronising? Would students get bogged down in arguments about definitions and self-identification? How could we work intersectionally and avoid generalising working class student experiences?

The officers simplified it for us. They simply wanted to talk about, and mobilise students around, class.

We received £5000 in WP funding from the university to help build a working class students’ network. We commissioned a community researcher to work with the officers on a participatory action research (PAR) project, with the broad aim of creating a space for exploring, sharing and collecting working class student stories.

A core group of students practised participatory techniques (mapping, timelines, causal impact diagrams) on each other, identifying key themes as they went along. Loneliness came up a lot. Students spoke about “culture shock”, “feeling like no one understands”, “feeling like the odd one out” and “not having the same connections as back at home”.

This research will continue next year and we plan to collect a bank of student stories, with working class students talking about their experiences in their own accents, using language that is meaningful to them.

PAR for the course

There is huge potential in using participatory action research to better understand the journeys of students and build communities of action. PAR is proudly democratic, it empowers students to identify issues that affect them, analyse them together and identify ways to address them.

It’s more than a method of data collection – involving the development of relationships, sharing knowledge and taking collective action. Fundamental to PAR are the principles of inclusion, valuing all voices and citizens leading social change. This fits nicely with our ethos of engaging working class students, as partners, in network building, research and challenging inequalities.

PAR provides a counterpoint to student surveys and reductionist measures HEIs and SUs often use to measure quality. Approaches focused on student stories seem particularly suited to addressing the complexities of how less represented students experience everyday academic, personal and social situations. The rich narratives of less represented students have the potential to deepen our understanding of access, retention, attainment and progression at universities – not to mention participation in SUs.

York has class

A conference we called “York Has Class” was a key success for the network. It was like a festival, celebrating and exploring diverse lived experiences of working class people through theatre, film, photography, storytelling, lectures and discussion.

The power of the conference was in its summoning of anger, hope and pride. Whilst invited authors; Kate Pickett (Spirit Level), Mike Savage (Social Class in the 21st Century), Claire Ainsley (The New Working Class) and Diane Reay (Miseducation) explored class inequalities in education and health, our student speakers spoke about overcoming huge barriers, finding their voices and the pride they have in the places they come from.

Attendees – from York and beyond – spoke about feeling a sense of belonging, being inspired and the importance of putting working class narratives centre stage. And the opening conference speech was published as a guest blog post on The Equality Trust website.

What are the lessons for SUs

So many of the issues we deal with in SUs are underpinned by class, but for some reason many of us shy away from discussing it. Talking about it has been hugely helpful.

When we do get into “class”, there are often narratives of social mobility that celebrate the growth of working class students at university, but fail to problemtise unequal experiences, outcomes and access to “full participation”. Part of what we’ve learned is that we need to be honest and open about the problems, not just celebrate “working class heroes”.

Traditional democratic structures are supposed to discuss and debate issues of concern to students, but they don’t cut it. Creating spaces for students to talk about their experiences, share ideas, learn and take action is key. And encouraging students to talk proudly about their (in this case) working class identities and celebrating their unique contributions matters.

Pushing institutions to work in partnership with students, liberation networks, student societies and officers on access and participation has to mean more than surveys and the odd officer on a committee. We ought to be asking for funding to carry out work that emphasises the value in listening to student stories.

And for YUSU, this work has also opened up deeper questions about what WP looks like in an SU context – how can we critically address, champion and support the participation of underrepresented students in sports, student media, and student politics. WP is an SU issue too.

Nick will co-deliver a session with YUSU’s first Working Class Officer, Connor Drake at this year’s Membership Services Conference in August

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