Building community – tertiary education as an act of solidarity

Tertiary Education Futures
Publication Date
Professor Anne Anderson FRSE
Dr Neil Speirs
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The future of tertiary education
Building community - tertiary education as an act of solidarity

Everyone should have access to the benefits of higher education. Solidarity plays a pivotal role in shaping the tertiary education system’s landscape, and Dr Neil Speirs provides a compelling vision of what it should look like in the future. Neil introduces the concept of a “pedagogy of hope” and reflects on how it can profoundly empower students and foster their growth. He delves into classism on campus and its adverse effects on students from diverse backgrounds. Listen to gain valuable perspectives on mitigating these effects and creating a more inclusive and supportive learning environment.

Join us as we examine how the higher education system can build more inclusive approaches and embrace their social responsibility towards local communities. This thought-provoking conversation seeks to pave the way for a brighter and more inclusive future in education. We aim to uncover transformative insights and practical strategies that can shape a more equitable and united educational landscape.

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RSE, Vice-President Research
Widening Participation Manager, University of Edinburgh



This transcript has been automatically generated so may feature errors.

00:00 Professor Anne Anderson: Hello, my name is Anne Anderson. I’m Vice President for Research at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And here is our first podcast discussing the future of tertiary education. Today’s topic will explore widening participation and in particular the role of solidarity in the education sector, the benefits of fostering a sense of community and how we can provide inclusive systems that support all students, whatever their backgrounds. I’m joined today by Dr. Neil Spears, Widening Participation Manager at the University of Edinburgh. Neil’s background involves working as a manager, practitioner and researcher in a number of areas concerning widening participation, access and related policy. He has led a number of community-based projects, as well as teaching and researching centred around areas of interest, including the transition from school – primary to secondary – undergraduate student transitions, the equity of the student experience, the working class, mature student, student parents, the hidden curriculum and classism on campus. 

Widening participation has been a key policy for quite a while at all levels of education. However, we know more needs to be done. From your experience, what are the challenges and opportunities you’ve noticed in your role? 

01:24 Dr Neil Speirs: Thanks, Anne. I’d say that I’d probably want to answer that question with a story if I could. It’s a story about a young woman from a working-class background here in Edinburgh. It’s a true story. And I hope it can start to address the opportunities and the challenges. In primary school when she was nine years old, a teacher every day would ask her to buy two or three items on her free school meal ticket. And this happened for a year and a half, essentially it felt like bullying to her. And it was only later on after a year and a half that she finally got the courage to tell her mom about it. And eventually her mom went to the school and made them aware, of course, to start with the mom wasn’t believed. The teachers were believed, that this wasn’t happening. And long story short, eventually, collaboration was drawn together and it was found that this was indeed the case. And this is what was happening to this young girl at school with her free school meal ticket. Also in primary school, the class when she was eight years old, went on a school trip. And she couldn’t afford to go. She was the only one in class that couldn’t afford to go. And the school were doing a project to prepare the class for going. And they told her that well, if you want to, you can take part, you’re not going, but if you want to you can or you can just go and sit in the next-door classroom and do something else. And immediately again, the young girl, she was losing the sense of connection with her teachers, with her classmates. Again, at parents’ night in primary school very, very, very, very little was ever said to her mom. Looking back, she always felt that it was because the very fact they received free school meals and maybe received the clothing grant and so forth and that everybody knew that. And one time, she told me that she heard her mom tell her the story how she at parents’ night could hear from inside another classroom two teachers talking about that, by the stage people get to primary two they know exactly what’s going to happen with the young people by the time they get to that age group. Everything that was expected to happen, the mother could see was based on those kind of social class-orientated assumptions and stereotypes. And in fact, the only person in the primary school who really talked to her mom was the janitor. And he lived two streets away from where she lived. They knew each other. And then when they went to high school, she went to high school every single day. And she stood up in line to receive her free school meal. She felt humiliated over and over, as her friends and the teachers walked past her. And she always would sense an element of the way that they looked at her as if there was a judgment being made upon who she was. Again at parents’ night one time, her mom had to take two buses to get to the school parents’ night. And on one occasion they were running late so she arrives late for her first appointment. And what happened? The mother was treated very much like a pupil, told ‘I have no time for you now. You’re too late. You’re going to have to move on to the next appointment’. Her mom would plea: ‘but I really want to hear my daughter is doing them so interested, I’m sorry, I just… I couldn’t get here in time because of the buses’. As she looked back, again, she always felt this was not how other parents were treated. But her mother was. And then in fifth year in high school, she was in class with a teacher, Mrs. O’Hara[1]. And Mrs. O’Hara was different, she took interest in her. And she would stay on after school to provide further tuition for the young woman, young girl. And she started to feel something, connected. And then one time in, it was the fifth prize giving and her mom came along, because she was winning a prize for the greatest effort showed by anybody in the entire year. Mrs. O’Hara went straight to her mother in the hall, and spoke with her and laughed with her and congratulated her on what a wonderful daughter that she had. Now, I suppose in addition to that there was school uniform, that even with a clothing brand was too expensive, and very often on official school moments, she would look and be dressed a bit differently from everybody else. But if we think of that schooling experience, no wonder Pierre Bourdieu writes, when he wrote back in 1989 and he said that ‘agents shape their aspirations, according to concrete indices of the accessible and the inaccessible of what is and is not for us’. Is it any wonder that the young girl, and indeed her mother would wonder, would question: is this whole journey and education for us? Have we ever apart from perhaps Mrs. O’Hara, have we ever felt part of this, included, that we were legitimized in this space? I suppose, I think was it not T.S. Eliot that wrote ‘the functional schooling is to preserve the class and select the elite’. And you might think, well, if I just said that, well, there is space, we can clearly see the challenges within that story, but we can also see the space for opportunity, the space where education isn’t a site for reproduction, but actually of transformation. And I think and we’ll, we’ll come on and talk a little bit later about hope, and a pedagogy of hope which is in right with that.

07:18 Professor Anne Anderson: Neil, that was absolutely fascinating and really moving, because it takes all of those policy initiatives, and makes them personal and human, which, of course, is how we all relate to one another, whether we relate well, or whether we relate as in your story, less well. Can I ask about the other concept that you’ve talked about and written about, which is this notion of solidarity and what it looks like in your experience now, and what it should look like in the future?

07:48 Dr Neil Speirs:  Regardless of the campus that you’re on, from the north of Scotland, to the south of England, across the entire country, campus life can be cold and distant. It really can. It isn’t all sunshine like the holiday brochure prospectuses might try to persuade us in a marketing sense. It isn’t always like that. And coolness and distance can be, I suppose, can be powered, can be energized, because we’re all taught essentially to glorify the entrepreneurial individualism that we see at some campuses, but everywhere. We are told that we celebrate competition and excellence, being world leading, being better than anybody else. Being at the top of the pile, that’s the legitimate place to be. You know, education is, you know, when it hasn’t become, it is a form of commodified manufacturing process when it’s at its worst. You know, I think it’s Henry Giroux[2] that says that it essentially produces cheerful robots, and that’s what we’re producing. And we all then go on to be self-sufficient, rational, economic individuals, that who we go on to be. I think Jacques Attali wrote, 2004, I think he wrote ‘no one, or almost no one believes any longer that changing lives of others has importance for him or her’. Now, I will reject that way of learning. And I would propose, what if campus life was warm? And what if it was caring? What if we legitimize the pedagogical approach that value caring, being collaborative and compassionate? What if collective labour was valued? And what if the norm of anxiety inducing insecurity that we can face in this modern world, what if that was not the norm, you know, what do we all realised? I think Peter Roberts from New Zealand once wrote this  when talking about Paulo Freire, when he said, you know, what if we realize that we all live with and for and through each other? We are connected no matter what we’re maybe told and persuaded to believe to the contrary, we are truly connected. And it is in that connection, I really genuinely believe that we can start to value the quiet, often unnoticed, gentle forms of solidarity and to start to legitimise these. These are happening, but we need to talk about them, we need to bring them to the headlines, we need to legitimise them so we can do more of it. This solidarity, that I genuinely believe in and I practice, and I know many of my colleagues practice and I’d love for others to try it because it’s quite beautiful, quite beautiful.

10:41 Professor Anne Anderson: That sounds so warm and moving, and presumably is a particularly important resource for those young people from diverse backgrounds, who don’t know how to navigate these rather ill-defined spaces, people coming from more socioeconomically deprived backgrounds, or from college articulation, to university, where how being a successful university person works, is not necessarily made explicit. But there are lots of implicit tacit forms of knowledge in there and I suppose, your concept of solidarity is about helping people understand and realize that for themselves.

11:21 Dr Neil Speirs: Very much so. Bourdieu talks about the rules of the game. And those rules of the game are very heavily guarded, because there’s power associated with them. But what we would need to do is open the door and express those rules. And once we know the rules of the game, we can all just do what we’re here to do. All our students are there to learn about the thing they love, and along the way to make friends and connections. And as a group, potentially, we just open up the rulebook as it were everybody, everybody will then be able to do that.

11:52 Professor Anne Anderson: That’s fascinating stuff. I think it leads on to the next concept that you’ve talked about, which is your observation of classism on campus. And how does that manifest itself, and more importantly, what can be done to mitigate its negative impact, again, particularly on those who are coming to tertiary education from more diverse backgrounds than in the past?

12:16 Dr Neil Speirs: Yeah, I think, Diane Reay writes beautifully about this, she does, when she says that class is the elephant in the room, not just in higher education, but in education, per se. It’s the elephant in the room. And I suppose we have to name the world, we have to name the world. And this is what we have to do. We have to name what we’re addressing here and what we are trying to deal with. And that’s the impact that social class has in education. And so, some might say, well, then I’m not sure that that’s, that’s, you know, I don’t identify in a particular class in that way. I’m reminded, Scott[3] says to us, he says that, and I’ll paraphrase, we don’t always have to identify ourselves in terms of class or think of ourselves constantly in that way, for social class division to exist and to be active. It’s active right now as we speak. And so it is real, it is there. And I suppose the result of classism is that our working-class students, you know, whichever campus it might be, I mean, it can be any campus across the country, but they can find themselves excluded, devalued, often humiliated, and separated. And in that sense, if that takes place, it’s happening through inter-personal relationships, so it will be student to student, it can happen staff to student, it can happen staff to staff. But also then there are the structures of society that frame and reproduce inequality. And those deliver that classism as well. So our working class students experience it through the structures of society, but also in the interpersonal. And, I mean, the heart that can be in there is quite horrible. I suppose maybe I can tell you about the most recent example that a student told me about just at the end of last week. And she told me that the group work that she was doing, the other four students in her group, were aware of her background and where she came from, which she was quite rightly, very proud of who she was and where she came from. But they were aware that she came from a background where she received a bursary. She was the first in her family to go to university, she was the first in her family to stay on at school beyond 16. And that, of course, she arrived at university not talking about this, she was just there to love her subjects and meet some friends along the way. But I tend to find that our working-class students arrive and then very quickly, they’re told, they’re informed by others who they are and how they might not be legitimate to be welcomed on campus. And it’s that action, there’s an awakening that our students go through, which they never expected to have to deal with. So that particular story would be of a particular young woman I am talking about, and she was very aware of the way she was talked to and looked at, and excluded as well as I’ve mentioned before. And then one of the group said, I think that you should give the answer to what we’ve all done on this first question, when they were providing feedback. And the individual deliberately gave the wrong answer for her to feed back so that she’d be humiliated in front of class. Now for her to speak in front of class took quite a lot. She’s an extraordinary young woman, an extraordinary student. But that took quite a lot. And when that happened, I mean, she went home and she was in tears, so she was, she really was. It doesn’t have to be like that. It doesn’t have to be like that. Thomas Piketty, the economist, reminds us that at inequality is not a law of nature. It is always a political or ideological choice. So who’s making this choice that this is how we’re going to live? I would reject that way of living. And I would want to live in a warm, collaborative, way of solidarity together. That’s so that we can live and we can achieve so much more in that way. But the classism that we see as Diane Reay wrote, she says, that the majority of working-class students, you know, are often trapped in university life as onlookers. But by the time you get to graduation, if I can paraphrase what she says, working class students are often bruised by the experience. It’s taken so much out of them which it shouldn’t. But it does. And so that’s some of the examples of the classism you can see. Now, of course, the story at the very beginning that we looked at, and you know, in primary and secondary school, there’s elements over there as well. So it’s everywhere. It’s in primary schools, secondary schools, tertiary education, it’s in society.

17:14 Professor Anne Anderson: It’s also presumably more of a structural challenge, as students are under more economic pressure, students from more working class backgrounds are more likely to have higher levels of need to work outside their studies, they’re more likely perhaps to have caring responsibilities, all of which perhaps reduces, as well as their welcome, the receiver do not receive their opportunity to participate fully in campus life. And presumably, there are challenges for institutions to make those richer non-academic experiences genuinely accessible for all students, rather than only those students who are on campus 24/7 and do not have these outside pressures and responsibilities and I’m not sure institutions have fully grappled with those almost structural challenges in addition to the interpersonal challenges that you’ve talked about.

18:14 Dr Neil Speirs: Absolutely. I mean, it’s that notion of the equity of student experience. And when the graduate labour market is not just as a word, just looking for the degree, and the challenges, of course, that are involved with all of us to take that off potentially, but they understand notions you quite rightly identify, it’s the extra and co-curricular and that’s related to employability. A number of community projects that I have elements of that associated with the students that work with us on it to make sure they can address these, these notions of understanding their development, understanding their graduate attributes, and then being able to confidently talk about that, beyond the subject specifics that they’re gathering in our lecture halls and laboratories and seminar rooms. And so yes, that equity of experience is not just what happens in the classroom. It’s across all campus, as you rightly point out. Yeah, absolutely.

19:06 Professor Anne Anderson: On the more positive side of things, Neil, you’ve written about the notion of the pedagogy of hope. This sounds a fascinating concept that I think will be new to many people. Could you unpack that a little bit more for us? 

19:19 Dr Neil Speirs: Yes, I mean, yes, absolutely. I comes from Paulo Freire, and Freire’s work on the pedagogy of hope I find immensely important to what I do. And perhaps Freire says, if I can quote him, he says: ‘the most fundamental lesson is the one of non-conformity before injustice, the teaching that we are capable of deciding, of changing the world, of improving it, and to genuinely believe that that is possible’. And so the hope that exists in that it’s not just a feeling. It also is deeply rooted with commitment to stand with community and to know that together we live through and with and for each other. And within that solidarity, we can express that hope, and true absolute belief that goes beyond that feeling. But that deeply rooted commitment to action, that that hope demands, that dignity that we all should have in our lives. I suppose though, there’s the rejection though, of the culture of indifference, that speaks to the world, not just on our campuses across the world, this culture of indifference, where we look the other way, or we’re looking only for our own interests, that’s the kind of the glorification of the entrepreneurial individualism. And we have to reject this idea of this culture of indifference, we can’t be indifferent to those who are next to us, or across the road from us, or on the other side of the world from us. But if we think just on campus, those who are part of our campus life, regardless of subject of this study, or whether they are staff or student, whoever they are. And so that hope, you know, it asks us to reject this idea, where often this dehumanizing sense of lack of love in society, where there’s a desire to dominate others, or to dominate nature, or whatever it might be, to reject that, and to welcome this kind of compassion and caring for others. And then deeply rooted commitment to action that is related to that hope. And that’s a pedagogical practice, so it is, that’s what it is. And so it’s something that all formal parts of education can look at. But of course, as we all know, pedagogy isn’t just what’s happening in the classroom. It’s those relationships that are taking place outside of the classroom. So in the corridor, you know, on the square, wherever we might be, how do we interact with each other? How do we treat each other? How do we welcome each other? Is each interaction coming from that, that notion of solidarity and hope and the expectation that there’s something great that could happen about us being here together and working together, as opposed to it’s a threat this other person might claim above me or whatever it might be? Some people might listen to this and think, well, that fella is completely naïve. He’s a fool. Well, maybe, maybe in the current world, people might say it, well, if the evidence suggests he might be, but if he is a fool, he’s a fool who is filled with hope, and the love of solidarity, and the belief in every one of our students, regardless of who they are, and I won’t apologise for that.

22:47 Professor Anne Anderson: I would never expect you to. I mean, the passion and the enthusiasm you’ve shown, and also how you’ve unpacked the kind of philosophical underpinnings are fascinating. Could I ask you to share some of the work you’ve done on a practical level to, in a sense, embody some of these more positive aspects in your own work around supporting students who are coming from what we refer to as widening participation initiatives or backgrounds?

23:18 Dr Neil Speirs: Absolutely. I mean, there’s lots to choose from. So I maybe only choose one or two, one or two. So it’s not a complete story. But perhaps the first one I might think about is that very early age group working with primary learners. In actual fact, we’re celebrating 20 years of that project this very year, and we’re delighted to do so. A massive project that works in true collaboration with those federal primary schools in Western Hailes and Liberton Gilmerton and Craigroyston and some of it features as well into Leith Academy. And we haven’t been in all of those schools for 20 years, but minimum would be a good 10 in most of them, and in many of them for 20 years. And that is about the initial touching base with learners to make them aware of what lies beyond high school. Very often, that’s something that individuals don’t know about. And that’s nothing that’s not their fault in the slightest. They don’t know about it, they don’t know this goes back perhaps to the opening story Bourdieu reminding us of what we think, you know, what it is for us and what isn’t for us. But it’s to be able to shake that up and to see that there are many things that lie, opportunity wise, for every pupil, regardless of who they are, where they come from. And to be able to open them up to the idea, and this may sound very basic, but this is what we have to do, we take it back to first principles. Good pedagogical practice begins with who is in front of you, not what you think they should know, what they don’t know or what I know. No, no, the individuals in front of me, what do they know? What do they understand? And how can we develop from there? And so we tell the story what university is, who it’s for, is our one chance. There are many chances that you know, the beautiful idea of lifelong learning, that sometimes, maybe after school, it’s not the right thing for you. And that’s perfectly okay. Maybe in years later, there might be something that you’ve reconsidered. We open up the notion of the nomenclature, the language, which again, is a powerful barrier to people to be able to even talk and discuss about further or higher education. So we open up that language, we open up people to their city, parts of their city that they do not know. And when I’m meeting some of them next week, I’ll tell them about the room that we’re in right now, Anne, cause this is probably part of the city as well that they not know about as well, just as other parts of the city they won’t, maybe there’ll be areas that they’re very familiar with, but it’s their city. And isn’t it wonderful to know your city, that sense of place, and to know, as this particular city in Edinburgh has so many opportunities for all pupils, four universities, Edinburgh College. So many things to touch base with and you don’t have to leave home and go far if you don’t want to. So opening up that idea, normalizing what is a very scary and difficult thing to touch base with and to understand, and to develop that understanding of language. And then to get that sense of place as you’ve come to the institution, and get to know it. And normalize the idea and see how what you learn in school is related to what you might do in the future. As maybe primary learners may think about the world of work, and how we can show that curriculum is relevant to them, that you know, what they’re learning about is important and show how it’s relevant to them. That’s sometimes one of the great mysteries in school, brings people to me, sir why am I doing this? When am I ever going to use this? I’m a great believer in answering the question, I’ll show you when you’re going to use this, not just to think of things in that literal sense of, well this exact piece of knowledge might not be what we use, but the skills and attributes that are behind that, that facilitate that, that’s where the power is. And so it’s that massive experiential learning, David Kolb’s idea of experiential learning. And we take that forward and that’s a full year’s program, with workbooks and experiences in school and on campus. And there is a proper set of learning outcomes at the very end of it. It’s also filled with joy. Because isn’t the best learning when we’re smiling and laughing? Well, I mean, I would believe so anyway, that’s a really powerful place to be. And so it’s riddled with joy, there’s challenges, intellectual challenges in what we do, but the pupils always rise to that. It’s amazing how we just don’t sometimes ask our pupils what they think about things. I think if we did that a bit more often, we’d be hugely delighted with the sophisticated responses that we sometimes get. So there’s one example perhaps. Perhaps, if we think about the other end of the scale, perhaps, when students finally complete their journey and come to university, and another project that we were celebrating 20 years of just last year was our peer support program, which had been going on for 20 years where we have widening participation students, senior, supporting new first year students. And that’s a really powerful relationship. I talked about the warmth, and the collaboration, those relationships are purely warm, and open arms that revolve with that, you may think he’s seeing things too lyrically, you’re not in the slightest, this is exactly it and during the height of the pandemic, when so many people were at home, for many of our students, the only other person on a regular basis that they spoke to, outside of home. The power, the power in knowing that other staff and students care about who you are. And that you do well, and that you’re okay, your wellbeing, there’s immense power in that. And that’s exactly what happens in this relationship that we set up. Senior student working with a new first year student, we address the transition, because that’s a key point as you’re very well aware. So we address that transition. And we have that relationship progress throughout the year. And then that new student as they develop, they become the seniors students that feed it back in. So we have the relationships that are feeding into each other. It’s a community of practice, of collective labour. And we look after and care for each other generation by generation. And that’s exactly what happens. So it’s an example of what I’ve been talking about pedagogy in action in that way. Though, it all may sound very simple. But it’s all pedagogical action. And sometimes, outreach work is delegitimised a little bit by thought, that’s outreach work and so forth, but for me, it’s important to acknowledge there’s a sophistication in that work, there’s a pedagogical practice in that work. And that’s really when you can, you can really make projects sing. When you when you acknowledge that, and I think those two, one in primary and one at undergraduate level, might be two examples of which there are many more to illustrate some of the work that we do.

30:25 Professor Anne Anderson: Thank you very much. And just to end, I mean, it’s been fascinating talking to you and hearing from you, Neil. What do you think in your space, the future of tertiary education will bring? 

30:36 Dr Neil Speirs: Oh, my goodness, that’s a good one to finish with, Anne, isn’t it? I mean, I would be, I’d be a great believer in the potential for education to be a site of transformation, of liberation, that kind of idea, as opposed to a site for cultural reproduction. But of course, the answer is going back to what Thomas Piketty says about inequality, we need then to collectively decide that we don’t want to live in the way that we live right now. That we want to live better for and through each other. And that is what I would hope for. And that’s what I will continue to work for. Absolutely. And hopefully, others might join along the way. But that’s the key thing, how many of us are actually going to, and if we think about the Tertiary Education Futures report that the Royal Society has published. How many will take that time to read, to reflect in a reflexive way, and see their role here. And see how can they change their practice? How can they change their practice, in order to be able to appropriately engage in what the future of our education system could provide for all young people, regardless of who they are or where they come from? There’s immense power in that, Anne. And I’d be a great believer in the possibility of that. And so my prediction is, I’ll continue to work for it, and hope as many others as possible, will do exactly the same.

32:03 Professor Anne Anderson: It’s been wonderful to hear your passion for this really important agenda. Thank you so much, Neil. Thank you very much. 

[1] Names and places were changed to ensure anonymity.

[2] The quote belongs to C.S. Mills, Henry Giroux refers to this quote in his work.

[3] Scott, J. (2000) ‘Class and Stratification’ in Payne, G (ed) Social Divisions. Palgrave Macmillan, p 53.

Tertiary Education Futures
Publication Date
Professor Anne Anderson FRSE
Dr Neil Speirs
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