I was in a research seminar at the university a few weeks after beginning to study for my PhD, and one of the lecturers began to talk about ‘troubling’. This is a term first coined by Schön (1983) and refers to a feature of an individuals’ practice or profession that they feel is less than effective or equitable, and that essentially troubles them in some way. Many researchers use ‘troubling’ as the basis and driving force of their doctoral study . So I went away and thought about this, and came to the conclusion that yes I am troubling. I am troubling about a number of things, such as the increasing grip of marketisation on the HE sector, and the way that neo-liberal mechanisms mask social inequality. But mainly, I am troubling about the fact that an individual’s socio-economic background continues to affect their life chances. I am perpetually annoyed that since Lord Robbins stated in 1963 that universities had a responsibility to educate ‘all those that can benefit’ from higher education, some groups in society continue to benefit more than others.
I am also annoyed that graduate outcomes in the labour market continue to differ according to social class: a large scale study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies this year found that there are consistent disparities in graduate outcomes according to social class background, and that even if a working class graduate has the same degree classification in the same subject, from the same university, their middle class counterpart is likely to earn more. Was I surprised by this research? No I wasn’t – and that lack of surprise troubled me even more. This is the problem – we have all come to expect this. We know that working class students are unlikely to go to Oxbridge, even if they have the potential, we know that middle and upper class graduates are likely to earn more, it is the norm. Of course many researchers in the field discuss and criticise this and (rightly) call for change, but change on a real scale is yet to come. It troubles me, because it is not good enough.
So, therein lies the underpinning troubling that is driving my doctorate. My engagement in this PhD is fueled by passion and anger. I want to hear the ‘stories from the bottom’ of the ‘non-traditional’ (I hate that term but that’s another blog post) students themselves, the ways in which they live their HE experience and the impact HE has on them and their sense of agency and identity, in order to try and illuminate the ways in which the sector, and this institution in particular, is seeking to either challenge this perpetual inequality, or reproduce it.