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Whose voice is heard in higher education?

  • 29 March 2019
  • By Professor Tom Sperlinger

A guest blog kindly contributed by Tom Sperlinger, Professor of Literature and Engaged Pedagogy at the University of Bristol. He is also the co-author of Who are universities for?

Recently, I was talking to an academic colleague who I have known for more than 10 years – and who I had always assumed was from a relatively privileged background in the south of England (as I am). ‘Actually, I’m from Hartlepool,’ he told me, before revealing that his accent had morphed into something close to received pronunciation (RP) when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge.

This incident came back to me last week when I attended an event organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum on the future of widening participation. Alan Rusbridger gave a presentation on the admirable foundation year he initiated at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) College in Oxford. He talked about the gaps in knowledge that his students felt they had, not least a lack of cultural capital, which the foundation year helped them to fill in.

Rusbridger’s remarks provoked a lively debate from the floor. As one speaker put it, widening participation shouldn’t mean taking working-class kids and teaching them how to be middle-class.

I recently wrote a book with two colleagues, Who are universities for?, which draws on our experience creating a part-time BA in English Literature and Community Engagement and a Foundation Year in Arts at the University Bristol.

One of the things that motivated us to write the book was a feeling that universities themselves need to change, rather than expecting the students they recruit to conform to institutional norms.

Outsiders in the system

So what is it like to be a ‘widening participation’ student in the current system?

I used to have an office on the first floor of the Bristol English Department, which is located in a large 19th-century villa in Clifton, the wealthiest suburb of the city. There was one student who would never just turn up and knock on my office door. Instead, Nina would wait at the entrance for a porter, and then ask them to ring up and tell me she had arrived.

In the fourth year of her degree, Nina was around 15 minutes late for a meeting with me, because there had not been a porter on duty when she arrived. In exasperation, I said: “You don’t need to wait – you can just come and knock on my door.”

Several years later, Nina spoke on a panel about Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) experience at university. Nina talked about her educational history. She is in her forties and left school without qualifications, in part due to dyslexia, which was only diagnosed in her thirties. In 2009, Nina had taken a short taster course that the University had developed with the local Black Development Agency, on Black life writing. After some hesitation, she applied for the BA in English Literature and Community Engagement, a six-year course that is taught one night per week.

Nina told another story at the event. She recalled me telling her that she should just knock on my door when she arrived. Nina said that this conversation had made her realise that she still felt like an outsider in the University, even after four years of study. She was still asking for permission to enter, and expecting to be told to leave.

Different kinds of literacy

Nina was also honest that she had a mixed experience of the curriculum she studied.

I taught Nina for a module in the second year of her degree on literary theory. In one class, we were reading the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak’s (1988) essay ‘Can the subaltern speak?’. Spivak is often noted for the difficulty of her writing; she has won the annual ‘Bad Writing Award’ from the Journal of Philosophy and Literature.

The students in this seminar were all mature. Twelve of the students were White, two were African-Caribbean, and one was of Chinese origin. The White students dominated the discussion to begin with and their complaints against Spivak’s style were insistent. “Why does she write this way?,” one asked: “Shouldn’t it be possible to say these things in a way that’s comprehensible?” Nina interrupted the other students. She had found plenty of the texts we had looked at in this module difficult. But now she said: “It didn’t seem that difficult to me. She’s saying ‘fuck off’, she’s just saying it in her own way.”

Nina later told me that she had found Spivak’s writing inspiring: ‘I remember thinking, “That’s a model, or a way”.’ We often frame a university education as being about students gaining ‘academic literacy’, learning how to speak, write and think as part of broader conversations and within given conventions. But Nina’s experience with Spivak shows that there are many different kinds of literacy.

The community engagement element of Nina’s degree was also important to her. In these modules, in years 1-4 of the degree, she continued her work with a Black women’s arts organisation as an accredited part of her degree:

“It allowed me to be me. The other stuff I have to fit into a box, a box that sometimes you say ‘Oh, it’s about free thinking.’ It is up to a point, but you have to conform. I think community engagement allowed me to explore and be with the community or to serve. I found that was the less structured part of the whole thing, so I could write, I could do a project, and you accepted me for me, what I did.”

Wider implications

It is not surprising that many people feel like outsiders in the current model of full-time undergraduate education, which evolved in the 1600s, at a time when a tiny number of privileged men went to university and then on to a job for a life. In some ways, it is remarkable how little this model has been questioned, the pioneering example of the Open University aside.

At the moment, students like Nina are too often asked (still) to be pioneers themselves, changing a system that is not designed for them.

What wider lessons might there be from Nina’s story? Here are a few:

  1. We need structures that allow students to bring their life experience with them into the classroom, rather than having to discard it at the point of entrance.
  2. We need more mature students, who are often particularly adept at articulating their own knowledge and point of view, and putting it in dialogue with expertise.
  3. All curricula need to change to acknowledge a range of perspectives, not just the White male ones that have too often dominated.
  4. Students need to have opportunities to shape the curriculum – and to work with those outside universities.

One of the most exciting aspects of courses like foundation years is that they make it possible for universities themselves to be better at learning from new, alternative, marginalised or unexpected points of view. It’s remarkable, in some respects, how bad universities as institutions are at modelling how to learn.

Nina’s example shows both the opportunities, and risks, involved in widening participation. Whatever our good intentions as practitioners, nobody should lose their voice when they enter higher education.


  1. Ben says:

    So we need to change curricula to better suit students from ‘diverse’ backgrounds instead of designing courses that demand excellence from all students. The purpose of Universities is now to make everyone feel comfortable and measures should be taken to make sure white males don’t dominate intellectual discourse. If you don’t want to lose your voice, then speak up.

  2. I’d love to discuss Nina’s story in greater detail. After all, it seems on the face of it strange to reduce Spivak’s message in “Can the subaltern speak?” to “fuck off” and to gloss her style as idiosyncratically “her own”.

    While it is arguably “difficult”, it is a nicely written and conventional (within its field) engagement with her peers. It is “literate” — indeed, “academically” literate, on any standard I can cite. (Indeed, I think it’s factually untrue that she has won the Bad Writing Contest.)

    I’m less sure of what competence Nina’s reading displays. And you’ve obviously left out a lot of details. My hunch, however, is that the more you convince me of her competence by reintroducing details about her engagement with and understanding of Spivak’s text, the more conventionally academic her literacy will appear. That’s what I’d like to discuss, if you are interested. I think the subject is important.

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