Tag Archives: university

Moving home? The social and spatial (re)configuration of student accommodation

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

University campuses up and down the country are looking rather bare at the moment, but at the end of the month the students will descend once again, moving into halls of residence and shared houses or flats. This important rite of passage into adulthood is seen as a means of teaching young adults domestic skills. However, Holton’s (2016) paper in the most recent issue of Area suggests that shared student accommodation is perhaps not the best environment in which these skills can be learnt, providing some thought-provoking findings that may be of interest to students this autumn as they prepare to move.

There are subtle differences between ‘house’ and ‘home’, although we almost invariably use them interchangeably. In general, a house is simply a building, a space which is bought, occupied, and sold. Its foundations make it a permanent space, but its use is transient and ever-changing. A home, then, is more than just bricks and mortar; it is a house with meaning, a space in which we can express identity, a tool for fashioning familial relationships, and a means of fostering a sense of belonging. Houses become homes when they become lived spaces, spaces which define us and mean something to us. That is what makes a house a home.

With this definition in mind, then, students moving away to university leave their homes and move into houses (or flats). This, as Holton’s (2016) work suggests, raises the question; can students really call their student house a ‘home’? He considers the micro-scale geographies of student interactions in shared accommodation, interactions which are spatially mediated. Shared student houses, he argues, are dynamic spaces in which multiple, fragmented identities are performed and different versions of ‘home’ are embodied.

In moving into shared accommodation, students are thrown into hybridised spaces, very different to their home environments. They try to make their new abode a ‘home from home’, taking with them things from their home life; a few photographs, clothes, and books, but also, more importantly, Holton (2016) contends, taking preconceptions of how ‘home’ should be lived. All of a sudden, the ways in which they behaved in various spaces at home are challenged in the new environment of student accommodation. In their new residence, students have to renegotiate their time-space routines, changing the ways in which they use space, the habits that they have acquired, and the norms in which they believe.

With each student having their own individualised behavioural norms, house-sharing inevitably involves compromise. Whilst a lot of students who live together get on like a house on fire, tensions arise when conflicting norms clash and compromise is unheeded. Such tension, Holton (2016) identifies, is spatialised, arguments invariably being caused by the (mis-)use of space; leaving dirty dishes on the kitchen side, not taking the bins out, or being inconsiderate and noisy whilst others are studying. These are just a few clichéd examples, the point being that space has an important role to play in student relationships. Appropriate behaviour is judged based on its spatial location, variously deemed ‘in place’ or ‘out of place’. For instance, it may be acceptable to be untidy in your bedroom, but, relocate this behaviour to the living room, and it becomes a misdemeanour.

Thus, in student accommodation, it is the shared spaces in which most problems occur. Holton (2016) refers to these spaces as ’24-hour spaces’, flexible and communal, facilitating constant interaction and socialisation. In the lounge, for instance, students watch TV, play video games, drink, and chat. In the kitchen, they may cook or eat together and, when hosting house parties, the whole house can become a space for social interaction and general merriment. These shared spaces are a contrast to the relative privacy of students’ bedrooms; very individual spaces. Bedrooms become personalised with posters, photographs, and other keepsakes reminding students of home, but they also personalise these spaces with their behaviour, the only space in which they can do as they please. Nonetheless, this is all within reason, an inconsiderate use of these personal spaces also causing many arguments in student houses, where walls are thin and noise can travel.

So how do students resolve the conflicts that seem so inevitable? It is quite possible that the reason behind students being untidy and inconsiderate is not that they behave like that at home but, rather, because in their shared accommodation there is no authority figure to map out and implement domestic norms. Thus, Holton (2016) identifies that some student houses create house rules or rotas, in an attempt to keep order. In other student houses, Holton (2016) states, students adopt almost familial roles, some becoming ‘parents’ in order to enforce behavioural norms, in the formation of an albeit fragile hierarchy. Other houses still may resort to, what Holton (2016) has termed, ‘boundary-making’, students locking themselves away in their rooms and dodging shared spaces to avoid confrontation.

The student house, then, is a complex space, simultaneously facilitating and thwarting social interaction through the use of space within it. It is, thus, a halfway house, not quite home, but more complicated than most houses. Holton’s (2016) article hammers home just how vital compromise is to inter-student relationships. Thus, whilst not a true reflection of domestic life, living in shared accommodation teaches some very important life-lessons of its own.

books_iconHolton M 2016 Living together in student accommodation: performances, boundaries and homemaking Area  48 57-63.

60-world2Cahalane C 2016 Halls or Houses: where will you live at university? The   https://www.theguardian.com/open-days/2016/sep/05/halls-or-houses-where-will-you-live-at-university

Exploring “Militant Research” and how to research protest

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield



Banners at the moved Occupy London protest in Finsbury Square in the City of London: Image credit: Alan Denney 

This month sees the twentieth anniversary of ‘The Battle of Newbury’ when protesters were evicted from their camp to make way for a bypass. The BBC takes the opportunity to reflect on the long term impact of the anti-road campaign. Journalist Paul Clifton reported on events in 1996, suggesting that

“the protesters lost the battle. But perhaps they won the war. There is no doubt the tree climbers swayed public opinion and, later, political policy changed too. It virtually halted the construction of major new roads for a generation.”

In a recent article for Area, Sam Halvorsen discusses the challenges faced when trying to study social movements when the researcher has an involvement with the cause. He focuses specifically on the role of ‘militant research’ in his work with, and on, The Occupy Movement. Like Newbury, Occupy had a distinct geographical element to its fight against much bigger issues and it fought to physically claim space. Halverson states the ‘starting point for militant research is not an academic researcher seeking to further a particular strand of knowledge, but the context of political struggle’ (2015:467). He acknowledges many within those struggles are already engaged in theorising, but may have an antagonistic relationship with academic institutions.

Having a dual role as a scholar and activist is not new, but it remains problematic. Universities are labyrinthine structures, constantly reshaped by the students and staff within them. They can provide opportunities to support research, engage in discussion and offer practical help such as meeting spaces. They also have strict ethical codes which may, for example, complicate relationships with direct action campaigns. The militant researcher cannot claim to be neutral – indeed the rich understanding they offer springs directly from their commitment to the ethics and aims of the cause they are engaged in. Halvorsen also discusses his experience with ORC (The Occupy Research Collective) an attempt to re-imagine research and create opportunities outside the university. This became a valuable space for discussion but encountered its own problems.

Halvorsen concludes that militant research needs to constantly be ‘pushing against any form it takes, as it is only through negation (and simultaneous creation) that change becomes a reality’ (2015:469). He draws on Holloway (2002) and the idea of a dialectical relationship between protest and its wider context. This accounts for both the contradictory relationship between both universities and militant researchers and the researchers themselves who may criticise the movements they are studying. Social movements, and their struggles for justice, are key components of society. It would be disingenuous to claim researchers are, or can be, passive, objective onlookers. Taking a critical view of such movements, whilst remaining involved, is necessarily complicated but very worthwhile. Passion and an ethical commitment to a cause should not be a barrier to research, as surely scholarship should be aiming to make a positive difference to the wider world.


60-world2 The BBC (2016) Did The Newbury Bypass Change Anything? Online article accessed 13.1.2016

books_icon Halvorsen, S.  (2015) Militant research against-and-beyond itself: critical perspectives from the university and Occupy London Area, 47:4 466-472 (open access)

books_icon Holloway, J (2002) Change the world without taking power: the meaning of revolution today. Pluto Press: London



Undergraduate to Under-Paid: Assumptions Behind the Marketisation of University Fees

By Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Source: Wikimedia Commons

As universities across the country prepare for the latest influx of new students this month, an article by Sarah Hall (2015) in the most recent issue of Area reveals the truth about the saga surrounding university tuition fees.

The New Labour Government first introduced undergraduate student fees in 1998. Originally capped at £1,000 per annum, fees facing English students have now risen to a maximum of £9,000 per annum, completely changing the nature of higher education. What is more, an article in The Independent (2015) this summer has predicted a further increase, with fees expected to reach £10,000 per annum by the end of the decade. University degrees have been transformed from a public to a private good, a commodity that reframes students as consumers. Fees, however, vary within the newly-devolved United Kingdom. Welsh students currently pay a maximum of £3810 per annum, Northern Irish students £3805 per annum, and Scottish students have paid nothing since devolution in 2000.

The justification of English university fees relies on a number of assumptions about graduate salary premiums and domestic labour markets which, Hall (2015) argues, ignore the simultaneously relational and territorial nature of labour markets. The process whereby undergraduate fees were normalised in this country was based on the argument that existing funding was not financially sustainable. Asserting the value of obtaining a degree in terms of enhanced job prospects and greater salaries, it was decided that the individuals who benefit most from universities should contribute more. However, the nature of these benefits is highly variable, with employment rate and salary premium differing greatly between degree subjects, universities, genders, and geographical locations. It cannot, therefore, be assumed that every university student graduates with the same opportunities.

The marketisation of university fees in England depends on students being prepared to take out a student loan, but also on their earnings reaching the threshold level of £21,000 so that the loan starts to be repaid. However, these assumptions have now been challenged, as it is estimated that fewer graduates will be able to pay back their loan. A report in The Independent (2015) predicts that as many as 75% will not pay back their loan before it is written off, 30 years after their graduation.

Hall (2015) identifies the multiple global factors changing the nature English graduate labour markets, and contributing to the increased number of graduates not earning the threshold level. A major factor is the significant increase in the number of international students graduating from English universities and competing with English students for graduate jobs. Furthermore, the nature of work is changing; employers are increasingly looking for higher skilled workers at lower costs, and information technology is being used as a managerial tool to further reduce labour costs. Finally, an increasing number of graduates are working in non-graduate level jobs or overseas and, therefore, not benefiting from salary premiums.

It appears that holding a degree from an English university no longer puts graduates at an advantage. It is, however, not all doom and gloom. An article by BBC News (2015) last month shows that at least graduate unemployment is on the decrease. Only 2.6% of students graduating in 2011 are now unemployed, the lowest rate since 2008. Furthermore, the number of students at university from disadvantaged backgrounds has not decreased, as was expected following the rise in tuition fees.

The Times Higher Education (2015) last month stated that students’ spirits are not being dampened by their precarious financial positions. In its first year since the rise in fees, the National Student Survey has reported an unchanged level of student satisfaction. 86% of current students are satisfied with their university experience, but how many will be as satisfied once they have left the deceptive university bubble and enter the real world?


books_iconHall, S. (2015). “Geographies of marketisation in English higher education: territorial and relational markets and the case of undergraduate student fees”, Area, doi: 10.1111/area.12216.

60-world2BBC News. (2015). “More graduates in work, survey suggests”. August, 27th 2015. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-34053555.

60-world2The Independent. (2015). “Tuition fees: UK universities set to charge £10,000 by end of decade, says major report”. July 30th 2015. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/higher/tuition-fees-uk-universities-set-to-charge-10000-by-end-of-the-decade-says-major-report-10424931.html.

60-world2The Times Higher Education. (2015). “National Student Survey 2015: £9k fails to dent satisfaction”. August 12th 2015. Available at: www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/national-student-survey-2015-9k-fees-fail-dent-satisfaction.


Sarah Mills

Thousands of new students will begin their degree studies at universities across the UK this month.  Freshers’ week is notorious for its associated drinking culture, but in reality it is just as much about getting to know new people, the details of your course and familiarising oneself with the campus.  Joanna Davies novel Freshers catalogues the experience of Freshers Week in Wales and her student days (see guardian blog).  However, these stereotypical images of the campus and all that is involved in starting University tend to cloud the complexities of the campus as a contested space.

In an article published this month on earlyview in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Peter Hopkins argues that “scholarship could usefully be extended to interrogate the complex ways in which different university campuses are constructed, contested and experienced”.  Specifically, Hopkins examines the “multiple constructions of the university campus through the narratives of 29 Muslim students attending a British higher education institution” and the “multiple and contradictory discourses that students utilise, which simultaneously construct the university campus as tolerant and diverse and as discriminatory and exclusionary”.  As well as a relevant addition to the geographies of religion literature, this article usefully highlights the contested geographies of the campus and offers us a timely reflection as the new term begins…

Read Peter Hopkins (2010) Towards critical geographies of the university campus: understanding the contested experiences of Muslim studentsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers [Earlyview]

Read Joanna Davies’ blog ‘Freshers’ week and the school of life’ The Guardian

Undergraduate Fieldtrips

Student Interviewing Gun Shop Owner In 2006

By Alexander Leo Phillips

By the time of publication I will be nearing the end of assisting upon a human geography undergraduate field trip.  Not a great deal has changed since I took the trip as a (slightly less) naive undergraduate back in 2006; which has led me to wonder about what tools we now have available to enhance the experience?

Some may cynically claim that their main justification is to act as a recruiting tool (and many would say their right); after all what kind of enthusiastic A-level student wouldn’t be tempted by a trip to New York or New Zealand. Details of such trips are often included as main open day themes as a result.  On the other hand they provide students with an important opportunity to employ various practical research techniques and link ‘textbook’ examples to the ‘real world’; something which can be easily lost in the lecture hall.

With the ever increasing virtual possibilities made available to us through various technological achievements, its likely that Virtual Field Trips (VFTs) will play a greater role in university curricula in future years. Stainfield et al explored the value of such trips back in 2000 and given the increasing economic stress placed upon students and universities, along with the ever improving technological capabilities, its likely that supporting VFTs will become increasing common place.  Few would suggest that they will ever replace the actual trips, but it would be interesting to explore their potential to enhance what we currently have and how things have changed since the 2000 paper.

Stainfield, J. Fisher, P. Ford, B. Solem, M. 2000. ‘International Virtual Field Trips: A New Direction?’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education. Vol 24 (2). pp. 255-262.

The Geography of Higher Education

Harvard Yard in Winter. Wikimedia Commons, 2009.

By Benjamin J. Sacks

May is commencement season in American higher education. Throughout the country nearly 4,000 research universities, liberal-arts colleges, community colleges, and specialty schools will graduate hundreds of thousands of students. It is fitting, then, to highlight the fascinating role geography plays in higher education. The American university model is traditionally designed as an all-encompassing environment for academic life, learning, and society. Most institutions are designed with the following characteristics in mind: a central green, or quadrangle surrounded by administrative, departmental, and library buildings. Surrounding the quadrangle lie dormitories, other libraries, offices, classrooms, and facilities. Finally, sports facilities and grounds are added.

The geographic organization of these buildings in relationship to one other, as well as how they fit in as part of the larger  ‘whole’ of the university, is sweeping in its variety. In a review of Architecture and Utopia, Isaac A. Meir argued that, ‘Envisioning, designing, and building the ideal environment has been part of the human endeavour since time immemorial. The physical setting in which a society functions is perceived a basic determinant of social interaction’ [Geographical Journal 174 no. 2 (June, 2008): pp. 188-189]. American universities, young in comparison to their European and Asian counterparts, were deliberately designed as utopian landscapes. Such visionaries as Frederick Law Olmstead (1822-1903), responsible for the layout of the Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, and University of Chicago campuses, molded architecture and landscape together to create fabricated geographies. In so doing, university founders determined the nature of social/academic interaction. Frederick Rudolph’s seminal work, The American College and University: A History, remains the most important analysis of the social and economic forces behind American university geography. Peter Kraftl’s ‘Geographies of Architecture: the Multiple Lives of Buildings’ in the May, 2010 issue of Geography Compass provides new, contemporary discussion of the role buildings play in human geography.

Perspectives on university and geography are by no means limited to the American experience. The ancient universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna, Paris, Salamanca, and Vienna, amongst others, grew as an integral part of their urban surroundings. Through gradual expansion concurrent with the development of the community, the geography of the mediaeval university became the geography of the city.

See Kraftl’s analysis of architecture geography in Geography Compass here.

See Meir’s definition of utopias in geography, along with an analysis of its application in Israeli kibbutzim, in the Geographical Journal.