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As you may know, one of my priorities
this year was to shed light on the experiences students from low socio-economic
backgrounds face during their time at a Russell Group university such as LSE.
Although there hasn’t been enough open dialogue on the matter it is unfortunate
that the wider political debates on this topic have managed to tarnish the
appeal for further exploration. Unique to Higher Education and more
specifically Russell Group universities there tends to be an outright denial
that vestiges of one's socio-economic (dis)advantage can exist or persist
once you’ve accepted your place at a prestigious university. It has often been
suggested that by virtue of being at university the concurrent issues faced by
a demographic are suddenly cancelled as they instantly reap the benefits of
Higher Education in its totality. Such hazardous assumptions can be innocent
but still all the more dangerous. Not understanding the experience of working
class students is one thing but to put your own assumptions about them
above legitimizing their own concerns about their own welfare is quite
insensitive. To me, it’s very interesting that despite the government
recognizing the prevalence of socio-economic disadvantage (through
university Access Agreements etc.) on campus some students would
still opt to refute these claims. Whether there is an outright rejection
or an attempt to undermine the complaints made by those in question, the very
fact that class is a protected characteristic yet receives no student representation
[i.e. SU Executive committees] at LSE or only several elsewhere is very alarming.
Furthermore, given that the more privileged students will not lose out by
introducing a class related or social mobility officer, there must be some
sort of unconscious prejudice active here.
It is understandable that
because low income students are often a minority at certain universities
that naturally the issues they raise may overshadowed by other issues,
they may not be taken as seriously or there may not be effective channels
for them to voice their concerns. Many of their peers may not even be
aware that university can be an alienating place for them and so for these
reasons it may be helpful to briefly walk you through some of the issues
at hand. In regard to LSE and other
Russell Group universities, the least their respective students’ unions (SU) could
do is to ensure that they have an elected student officer whose primary remit
it is to tackle elitism and represent the interests of low-socio economic/working
class students. The universities themselves have often failed and continue to
overlook the experiences of the aforementioned and seem not to care about changing
things institutionally. I doubt these universities even care that they miss out
on talented and overqualified applications just because they are known for
their overbearing elitist and expensive environments. Until things change at
the top, Students’ Unions must be proactive in putting these things on their
university’s agenda whilst ensuring that working class students have a seat at
the table i.e. represented by a committed student officer. This should go
beyond Students’ Unions (at some point) and be part of greater national student
non-white communities in Britain do not refer to themselves as working-class
but recognize that their socio-economic background reflects this term. This
does not mean that non-white communities reject the sentiment but culturally
they do use it for reference*
Most of the time one cannot talk
about class without people rendering the term obsolete or ineffective. Using
the ‘C’ word makes you some sort of a neo-Marxist, where somehow all your
claims of a working class identity falls victim to the weaknesses of
communism debate. The concept of social capital also makes class a grey area,
especially at university because social capital is supposed to counteract, or
at least mitigate, the entire burden of your income or neighbourhood
At university because the UK is
an advocate for capitalism it has affected the way we are even taught
economics. Capitalism normally acts to celebrate the individual and
removes the sense of community economics and experiences. Again, the
exploration of a class impact is pigeon-holed into Marxist theory and so
is rarely revisited in ‘mainstream’ economic thought and so the case for class
is left behind.
In addition, society buys
into the idea that upward mobility is the primary aspiration of all
and so as long as you are on an upward trajectory (i.e. at a top university)
little attention should be given to immaterial wellbeing, community and
non-financial consequences. It is true that those from disadvantaged
backgrounds would like to be relieved from societal and gov’t policy burdens
however their reasons for applying to university can range from 'seeing the
world’ to further pursuing their interest in learning and contributing to
intellectual debates. But with additional pressures from outside and within
university, the learning environment becomes less inspirational and more
daunting, more stressful and sometimes for of an opportunity cost i.e. risk.
‘Catching up’ becomes your reality
instead of excelling and outperforming your better equipped peers. Although
everyone finds university challenging, it is obvious that pre-university gaps
and the differences between people’s experiences can become more prominent.
There is opportunity to try and understand each other, and provide help where
needed but when voices are being muffled by status quo elitism; campuses become
a breeding ground for micro aggressions. Even students who keep to themselves
or are drawn to those with similar life experiences, you do question whether it
is really, entirely out of choice or subtle campus conscription.
Interestingly as exhausting as it is trying to validate the working-class
concept, there seems to more of a 'silent’ agreement of what it means to be
'middle-class’ despite it being so loosely defined. Again, this shows that how
the working-class name is less appealing (for many reasons) and how the
middle-class category is often a glorified benchmark in UK society.
There will be students from low
socio- economic backgrounds who don’t necessarily feel victimised by elitism.
They may reflect on the opportunities they utilised to their advantage and
encourage others to ‘work hard and reap the benefits’. This is a valid point
and very logical. However, something I will touch on next in greater depth is,
not all experiences are the same nor are all opportunities open to everyone.
The issues facing low socio economic students are layered.
Remember the word
‘intersectionality’? Different genders, classes and races (the list goes on)
have different experiences with structures and institutions, and because someone’s
identity can encompass more than one of these social categorisations it is no
wonder why people from the same social groupings can have varying experiences.
More obvious to us, is that people are generally just different. They will have
different views despite having similar experiences. This is a more
scientific argument but for now we can accept that - people respond differently
to different situations and so no one narrative will perfectly suit anyone.
Saying this, there are very general experiences that people from certain groups
share despite it being to different degrees. Therefore, when exploring
class we should not reject it but understand that because of
intersections and social capital, such characteristics are more fluid -
evident but fluid. Any attempts to homogenise the ‘working-class’ experience
allows critics to treat the nuance between and within classes as a tool to
reject the existence of class or generally, disadvantage in the UK. Denying
class won’t make it go away but will make it more difficult to understand the
nature of the complaints made in its name. Just like in race relations, it is not for those who do not experience
institutional racism to determine how much it affects people and whether their
points are valid enough. Just as it is not for the heterosexual to validate homosexuality.
There is an element of narcissism and privilege attached to those who use their
own experience to dominate a discussion or enter a conversation without an open
mind. Do we really enter discussions about class to understand it or to
point holes wherever an opportunity arises?
Let’s return back to
intersectionality where class is one of the categories highlighted alongside
race and gender. Intersectional feminism is a movement that appears to have
really taken off on university campuses in the past three or four years; with
many arguing that it is the correct feminism not a sub branch of it. So, I
wonder if class is taken as seriously as intersectionality claims it to be.
Race is an extremely sensitive subject, not least because of the historical
acts of genocide committed against groups of people which has evolved into
present day oppression, discrimination and persecution. There are people
who believe that racism no longer exists or isn’t as prevalent in the UK as
they look towards the chaotic American society. There will be
those non-White people in the UK who even support these
claims but it is much more difficult to deny racism when you’re a low
socio economic non-white person living in an inner-city neighbourhood, that
is always subject to police interrogation; or if you are a child of a
professional or even an immigrant who constantly has to hear their parent
complain of office micro-aggressions, lack of promotion or racist insults.
You may be neither, some or all. The
idea is that your socio-economic background shapes the way you experience and
view life. Race wouldn’t be the complete story, nor would gender, nor would
sexuality and nor would age
Furthermore, if you are the only
non-white girl in your class trying to explain how feminist debates focused
solely on the gender-pay gap of Forbes listed CEOs are very 'privileged’
conversations people may not understand your angle. They may interpret this as
not understanding feminism rather than putting it into perspective and widening
the debate. In addition, you may be someone who appreciates the sentiment
behind veganism but can’t afford such a diet when you have to save pennies for
the electricity or gas key. Again, lack of participation in this movement
should not be seen as disinterest in the environment or ignorance. There’s a
class or socio-economic narrative that isn’t always given appropriate or
contextual consideration. We are all living contexts and we cannot be separated
from them or their contributions erased. People should not prioritize the
impact of identities but respect that all social categorizations have the
potential to impact an individual’s experience in very powerful ways. It is
better for us, as students and as people, to allow each other to bring our different
identities to the table, not to compete but to appreciate the different
narratives at play. Let people advocate for themselves whilst others provide a
welcoming and open minded environment to facilitate understanding and
So what exactly are these complaints?
What are these experiences? Well, they vary by and large and affect some others
more than the rest. The experience of one person will not necessarily be that
of others yet no one experience is less important than another. Some people
face more than one ‘disadvantage’ and so measuring the impact of class becomes
so vital but so difficult. However, there can be no doubt that your
socio-economic background plays a key role in any experience and so the
inability to accurately measure it should not take precedence over
acknowledging its effects.
Below are just some of the
experiences and obstacles students from low socio-economic backgrounds face at
General ill-preparedness for the
transition (often from a state school) to an elite university
Unfamiliar teaching styles and
Contributions made in class
undermined by more privileged experiences, opinions discredited or can’t
relate to text
Unfamiliar with services and
resources at their disposal or reluctant to ask for help to avoid appearing
Teachers that don’t understand
background pressures that can affect academic performance
Feelings of inadequacy and academic
Peers mocking their accent or style
of speech (i.e. colloquial, slang, Non-London accent etc.)
General social isolation
Lack of representation within the
higher echelons of the university or students’ union
Over exposure to (harmful)
gov't education policies without committed university staff protecting
Lack of access, support or networks
to enter or explore key industries of interest
General disregard for how
class/socio-economic background intersects with their other identities i.e.
race, gender, age, disability etc.
Lack of dialogue about class and
the impact of one’s socio-economic background on their university experience
There will be many more issues that I
haven’t mentioned, many more experiences and probably many more areas to
explore. I just wanted to produce an almost 'introduction to the working-class
debate and experience’ for those who may not understand or would have been sceptical previously.
I hope that you all read the blogs
put forward by students at the LSE to gain insight into their experiences.
General Secretary of London School of
Economics (LSE) Students’ Union
When we think of the term ‘social mobility’ what often
springs to mind is not limiting young people in their choices and opportunities
to develop valuable life skills, no matter where they come from. In particular
we have a duty to lift up those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and strive
for equality of opportunity across all classes.
However, too rarely in such
conversations do the concepts of life-long learning and adult education come to
the forefront. The notion that the decisions you make, or indeed others make
for you, when you are a child or young adult should dictate your future path is
reflected in ever decreasing numbers of mature and part time students applying
to higher education. However, social mobility matters at all ages.
The barriers facing adults who wish to return to education
are not to be underestimated. Mature students are more likely to come from
lower socioeconomic backgrounds and less likely to successfully complete their
course then their younger counterparts (REF). Issues to do with finances, child
care and educational background often prevent or deter mature students from
applying to universities. If we are committed to social mobility we need to be
committed to helping these students with the process of returning to education.
Access Courses around the country provide one route for
those from non-traditional educational backgrounds to get into higher education
institutions at undergraduate level. I personally took such a course and met
mature students from all walks of life who had a wide range of reasons for
leaving, and returning to, education. The recurring theme was that extenuating
circumstances prevented them from achieving their full potential in high
school. Reasons from bereavement, family caring responsibilities, financial
insecurity, abuse and illness were not the exception, but the rule. These
individuals were let down by the education system, not the other way round. We
should be doing all that we can to ensure that these motivated individuals get
to, and succeed at, university.
The diversity that I experienced on my Access course is not
reflected at the LSE. The barriers in place in terms of admissions, with a
focus on past exam results, and difficulty experienced studying part time means
that it is extremely difficult for those with families or work commitments to
take up a place studying at the LSE. The last thing the LSE should be doing is
accepting students who cannot keep up with the workload and will subsequently
drop out of their programme, however, without appropriate support for mature
students, and, as an extension, social mobility, this demographic will never be
able to thrive at the LSE. Of course the school should encourage postgraduate
‘career changers’ and ‘leisure learners’ to study at the LSE as adults, however
this does little to further social mobility via adult education. The LSE needs
to increase the number of mature students studying on undergraduate courses, as
the first step into higher education, which last year was less than 1% (FOI).
It’s not enough to advocate social mobility for the young.
We cannot tell adults with potential for academic growth that they missed their
chance. The LSE has so much to benefit from embracing the diversity mature
students can bring. A focus on
university education between the ages of 18 and 24 essentially means that real
progressive social mobility can only happen at that point in your life. Education is the key to unlock higher earning
potential, home ownership, job satisfaction and personal growth. These benefits
should be no more exclusive to the young than they should be to the
privileged. Recognising the importance
of adult education brings us a step closer to enabling long lasting, meaningful
This is why we need a social mobility officer at the LSE, to
ensure that class is always a consideration in conversations about student’s
needs and wellbeing. In a world of gross inequality, the LSE should lead the
way in offering more opportunities and support to those talented and motivated
adults who wish to improve their current circumstances, and who deserve to be
In the lead up to TEDxLSE’s biggest event of the year, their annual conference themed ‘On the Brink’, Co-President Hanif Osman spoke of the society and how TEDxLSE fits into the TED family.
“We have to sign a contract with TEDx which says we will fulfil certain obligations for example not distorting the TED logo, resize or change it. In exchange they give us free reign. We had to apply for a license which is what I spent most of my time working on earlier [Michaelmas term]. I had to be in contact with TED in America trying to get this licence through and they ask a lot of details such as the theme of the conference.”
“The licence is for the conference, to say we grant you the right to use our branding and name and has to be renewed every year. I had a bit of difficulty in getting that through because they really like to scrutinise your idea as they have such standards to uphold. We work with a TED licensee, Christian Busch, here at the university. It has to be somebody - this is their rules - it has to be somebody who’s been to one of the original TED talks, not TEDx but the annual conference in America.”
Second year student Hanif, who is studying History got involved straight away in his first year as the Sponsorship Director and used that as a way in, to go for Co-President. He explained how TEDx groups work in London.
“There is a Facebook page for TEDx leads in London. You’re not supposed to have a conference when another TED group is having their conference, it’s just about the having the same respect. TEDx is increasing and this is what Christian told me - this is why you’re having problems with your application. They’re very conscious over in America that they don’t want it to be that every university or every community has a TEDx because then it just becomes not very exclusive.”
“We’ve been planning [On the Brink] since October. The idea came from Rishav Das, TEDxLSE Speakers Associate. The point of it is to address being on the brink, I don’t know what being on the brink means to you, it means different things to different people. For example, we have a politics professor who shall be speaking on things such as Trump and the rise of nationalism. It’s this argument that politically, we’re on the brink of something like fascism, moving away from the liberal democratic order.”
“Then you look at science, I’m a bit dubious when it comes to that because I think science is always on the brink but there’s the argument that with robots, this is the brink for humans, when jobs are getting done by robots. That’s the main aim of the society and conference, not to be focused on any one idea. LSE has a bad reputation of its students, when it comes to this, that they’re very business focused. There might be the expectation that all talks are related to banking and finance and that’s what we don’t want. We want an element of that, perhaps two or three around the business world because it relevant and important but we want politics, culture and we’re trying to get a performance on the day. We’ve got a 50/50 divide of male and female speakers and we’ve got, I think four or five BME speakers also.”
So in the lead up to the conference, they hold a student speaker competition, with the winner gaining a place on the list of speakers at the conference. This year, these include Tom Blomfield, CEO of Monzo Bank and neuroscientist, Dr. Tara Swart.
“We had three judges, Busayo Twins LSESU General Secretary, my Co-President Amaima Fatima and a Statistics Professor. They voted for Candy Gan and it was a bit of a surprise for some. There was a girl called Temi and she came 2nd. People expected her to win but the judges had a scoring system and they went for Candy. I went over to find out what we were going to do but they told me, these are the scores, it was kind of funny because the Statistics Professor was like no, this is what the scores say, he was very down the line. No ifs or buts about it. I think Candy was impressive and her idea was so unique.”
“We had about 30 entries of five minute videos and 12 talks made it to the event. Last year we really struggled with numbers, we only got 150 people and the thing is we only had about 50 LSE students, the majority weren’t LSE students. So we’ve changed our prices, as we think that may have been the reason why we didn’t sell as many student tickets. The atmosphere wasn’t there and we lacked that as you need that for the kind of event.”
“The speakers team have got a good line up of speakers. It all comes down to TEDxLSE. If you want to do a TED talk, TED at LSE sounds quite impressive, so it’s a pull for speakers and I think we should get sponsors through that also. We don’t get any funding from the main TED, that’s part of the relationship, we don’t give money to TED and they don’t give money to us. The transaction is that they give us the branding, I don’t know what we give them, I guess we give them talks because we give them our talks and they can put them on their main YouTube channel.”
After the conference the TEDxLSE team starts to wind down as well as start the process for electing a new team for the upcoming year. Due to exams and the approaching summer, Hanif admits that though not much else takes place for the society after the conference, more could be done such as themed discussion evenings or more casual screenings.
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