On Wednesday 21st February, Laura Bentley gave a talk on ‘Class-work’ in the elite institutions of higher education organised by the Jesus Education Society. Currently finishing a PhD at the University of the West of England, she worked on the Paired Peers project alongside her PhD. Laura began by stressing the importance of the topic, its relevance to her own life and the significance of this event taking place at the University of Cambridge. It is a topic which is rapidly unfolding within a changing landscape of higher education, as institutional reforms carry different consequences for different cohorts. Tuition fees in England are now over 10 times higher than the European average and students accrue more debt than their American counterparts. While some have access to private capital to help mitigate these debts, these are the minority and the poorest graduates accrue double the debt of their wealthier counterparts. The much hyped ‘graduate premium’ needs to be qualified in terms of the financial situation with which graduates finish, as well as recognition of its continued decline.
For a working class young person, going to university carries economic, cultural and social risks. The Paired Peers research project, a collaborative project between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England, sought to understand these risks through analysis of 45 pairs studying the same discipline at their respective institutions. Through this paired analysis, it was possible to understand how widely the trajectories into, through and out of university varied between students at the two institutions. The project produced rich qualitative descriptions of the lived experience of these differences, as they were lived out in relation to other students within the two universities occupying the same city. Behind apparently unitary notions of the student experience were radically different experiences of being a student, compounding the risks faced by working class students due to a pervasive failure of understanding by others within the university and the city. This is most dramatically illustrated by the difference between middle class students who could rely on the financial cushion of their parents and worked, if at all, to afford luxury items and working class students who were reliant on paid work in order to make ends meet.
It was a thoughtful, informative and insightful talk which skilfully blended empirical data, theoretical analysis and autobiography. After walking us through the classed landscape of higher education, Laura told her own story of being a working class woman in higher education and her experience of the costs entailed by the ‘third space’ she now inhabits. Her talk ended with a powerful account of how she rejects individualising notions of class mobility before offering practical suggestions for bringing about the cultural and structural transformation of universities. Thanks to Anna Vignoles and Arif Naveed at the Jesus Education Society for organising it and most of all to Laura for sharing this work with the audience on a cold February evening in Cambridge.