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Interview: Elle Glenny on the creation of a Working-Class Liberation Officer
by Lily Settari, 17/02/18

The Student talks to Elle Glenny, a 6th year part-time postgraduate student for MSc Environment and Development. Elle is the Taught Postgraduate Representative, and is proposing a new Liberation Officer position representing working-class students, as part of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association

Why does the University of Edinburgh need a Working-Class Liberation Officer? 

I think a working-class liberation officer could help to make a minority on campus feel comfortable with their own identity, and to increase awareness of the persisting historical and institutional classism which working-class students face at Edinburgh.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only 18.7 per cent of our students came from working-class backgrounds in 2016. Despite the University’s Widening Participation programme, working-class students constitute a minority in the university community, and they face structural oppression and discrimination.

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While the University is making efforts to address the financial inequalities faced by many working-class students, issues of social and cultural capital are not being addressed. Of course, I have doubts about what such a liberation officer could do against a long-institutionalised classist legacy, and I’m concerned that the University might use the creation of that office as an excuse to neglect its own responsibilities in the efforts for working-class students.

To work against that, I’m proposing a threefold approach. This would include, first, offering economic, social and cultural capital to students, including increased funding, sessions on career planning and job interviews, specific placements; second, holding the University accountable to their widening participation policies; and third, building up a wider movement within the National Union of Students.

What struggles do working-class students face?

I think those who make it into Edinburgh, and who don’t decline their offer because they don’t feel like they would fit in from the start, can find it much more difficult to enjoy their time at university, because of a lack of economic, social and cultural capital, and support. Working-class students are more likely to quit their studies, and they are often excluded from extracurricular activities or study trips, even if they are passionate and creative individuals, because of a lack of money or self-confidence.

I remember sitting in a tutorial in first year, together with people who had been educated at Eton, and feeling stupid. For six years, I have felt that I needed to constantly fight my ground. This has only increased since I’ve started my postgraduate degree, because there is even less funding available. I think that’s because postgraduate study is considered a luxury, but no one should have to fight for their right to education. Another problem is the fetishisation of working-class culture by the middle-class, for example during ‘chavvy’ club-nights.

Overall, a working-class liberation campaign shouldn’t simply make certain students ‘fit in’ at Edinburgh, but it should make the University a more inclusive space.

Has such a role been created at other UK universities?

Yes. Currently, working-class liberation officers are active at six universities in the country: London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), School of Oriental and African Studies, London (SOAS), King’s College London, St. Hilda’s College at Oxford, and the Universities of York and Manchester. Especially Manchester’s student union is often mentioned as an institution similar to Edinburgh in terms of size, demographics and functioning, which hopefully means that there is a realistic possibility that we will be able to create this office here.

Why does this role not exist already, in your view?

These days, it can be difficult to have discussions about class issues. They are often not openly addressed, or even denied. I think that stems from the fact that the Tory and New Labour rhetoric has tried to make people in this country think that we are all middle-class.

How many students would the working-class liberation officer represent?

That would depend on who would be included in the working-class student community. I’d support that belonging to that community should be based on self-identification, even though I’m aware of the risks that come with that. But that’s how they do it for the other liberation groups on campus, and seems to be the best way forward.

At which stage of the process are we at the moment?

I’ve submitted an ideas form of the Students’ Association to the Executive Board on 3 February. If the board approves, the motion will potentially be taken to Student Council. Obviously, I really hope that staff and students will support this, and that the first working-class liberation officer could be elected during the next academic year. I think if this was successful, that would be my proudest moment as a member of the university community.

Image: Baz via Flickr