Tag Archives: university

I’ve finally got some discipline in my life. The trigger for it was going to Oxford University for the National Centre for Research Methods, Research Methods Festival. I have been to Oxford University for a conference before so was slightly aware of their dining room and communal eating but I thought that this excellent service was for delegates only, you know, people serving you swiftly and efficiently, promptly at the allocated meal times – I thought the students would have some sort of regular canteen type situation with a dinner lady and stodgy food. But I found out that actually, Oxford (and Cambridge) students get fed and served like this everyday – by staff in bow-ties!

I was very shocked. ‘Normal’ students have to plan their food, budget, think about what to cook, use crappy saucepans and fight with their room mates who never do their share of the cleaning. All this eats up time and causes stress.

I lived at home during my BA and MA so did not have to suffer this stress with strangers, but I did not get served by my parents. We always lived communally where we all contributed and my dad never wore a bow-tie. Anyway, my point is that although at first I was shocked that this is normal and every day (oh how the other half live), I came from the conference refreshed, feeling healthy (the fruit was delicious!) and suddenly had become a early to bed early to rise person. It helped me get into a healthy routine.

My thesis is broadly speaking about widening participation, these elite universities for me were something to be hated and despised. But having now experienced this ‘boarding school for adults’, I think that all students, especially those who have to work, have children, live in crowded housing or noisy neighbourhoods, whilst trying to study, should be sponsored to spend six weeks (or months) in Oxford University as a respite and to have the opportunity to spend uninterrupted time on intellectual thoughts rather than chore thoughts or have no thoughts due to dragging through the day after sleepless nights spent in a noisy neighbourhood.

Oxbridge students could also have an exchange and live life in a ‘normal’ university for a bit too. I do understand that there are Oxbridge students who have lived in ‘the real world’, and realise I often exhibit probably unfair prejudice towards people educated in elite institutions, but for those privately educated young people who need this safe, protective environment as they have lived like this since aged 5 and Oxbridge for them therefore is a continuation of this boarding school environment, a university cultural exchange may be beneficial. Especially if Oxford graduates are our leaders and education ministers of the future.

I know of someone (@KathrynDodd) who once suggested to me that Oxford and Cambridge should become a university for postgraduates only. After experiencing this environment, I think it is a marvelous idea. I don’t see anything wrong with having this boarding school type of university like Oxford and Cambridge per se (so long as all the staff have good pay and benefits), but it should be available to a wider group of people, and perhaps making it a postgraduate initiative is the answer.

Just so you can get a feel for the atmosphere there, here is the view from my bedroom window.

View from Oxford

Punting along

Until I moved out and now have the luxury of my own study, I did my degree and MA in an overcrowded flat, sharing a bedroom with my sisters and studying in the hallway, where I would get visits from my family as they used the toilet (as well as previously studying for my GCSEs and A levels in the watertank cupboard). I do work best now if I hear toilets flushing, farting, water running and the neighbours stabbing each other, and I would not change the experience I had as it’s made me as hard as nails and no sociologist should live in an ivory tower, but I reckon looking at ducks whilst thinking philosophical thoughts would have been pretty good too. Just as a respite.


Today, Professor Stuart Hall died at the age of 82. Many obituaries have been written but I wanted to write about what he meant to me.

I am not an expert on his work by any means. My awareness of Stuart Hall is mainly through my father who used the course materials prepared by him when he was doing a foundation course in Social Sciences with the Open University in the 1980s – when I was a child.

This was a time when there was mass unemployment, strikes and riots. Margaret Thatcher was in power and in my household she was a massive hate figure. We grew up on benefits but this doesn’t mean you are a lazy scrounger like the modern media likes to suggest, rather, my father decided to get educated. In those days I think people on benefits could get their fees for the OU paid by the government, so he did a few modules in Social Science. Stuart Hall was the course leader of the D102 unit, Conformity, Consensus and Conflict, and wrote the unit handbook. He wrote in a very accessible, respectful and friendly way. In this unit he explained the concept of ideology and why the working classes voted for Thatcher. There is a lot in there about striking and industrial relations and a critique of the concept of ‘false class consciousness’. Of course I couldn’t really read them then – being a child and all (although they are also illustrated with photos and drawings), but my dad who used to go off on one about Thatcher quite regularly, was now able to underpin his rants with sociological theory and deeper understandings of ideology, power and British society in the 1980s.

These course books were so excellent that we didn’t throw them away. Rather I even referred to them when I was doing my Sociology degree and MA years later. When my dad died in 2005 and we had a big tidy up, we eventually did get rid of the course books, but I kept this one as well as the core text that goes with it.

D102 coursebooks

D102 coursebooks

The passing of Stuart Hall is sad in itself, but for me, it is tangled up with the sadness of my father’s death. I see our handwritten notes side by side in the OU text and I feel a connection between the three of us through these course books. I am now doing a PhD in sociology about lifelong learning and higher education. This OU text really symbolises to me the importance of education for working class and unemployed people and their children.

I thank Stuart Hall for helping us to understand more about the society in which we live through his magnificent gift of writing, speaking and teaching.



(c) 2014 Annika Coughlin

I am reading a lot about widening participation, non-traditional students, access and such like in higher education for my project. The idea of a non-traditional (undergraduate) student is not a clear cut category. So a traditional student (in the UK, USA that is – other countries might have other ‘traditional’ characteristics) is a young male from a middle class background who is white.

Non-traditional students are defined with many characteristics but one of the main ones seems to be that they are first in the family to go to university or what is known as first-generation students.

I was thinking about my own situation. My parents were both mature students in around 1993 when I was 13. Both from a working class background and they were the first in their families to go. But that meant that me and my sisters were probably defined as a more traditional student because of the fact that both of our parents had been to university. So how does the concept of ‘first in the family’ apply when your parents went, but when they were in their 40s and just 5 years before you did?

The fact that they went just 5 years before me doesn’t mean we all suddenly became middle-class and all the social and cultural capital that goes with it… but it must be quite usual for children of mature students to then go to university as the idea of going to university becomes normal and achievable – but I haven’t found any research on this yet. But if someone is researching the children of mature students, do let me know what you find!


© Annika Coughlin 2014

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