A quiet, unnoticed form of gentle solidarity

Image credit: Lina Trochez, unsplash, CC0

In this post, Dr Neil Speirs reflects on students’ experiences of classism, and offers a more hopeful, caring approach to campus life. Neil is Widening Participation Manager, and this post is part of our Learning and Teaching Conference Hot Topic.


Our recent presentation at this year’s Learning and Teaching Conference was the culmination of a staff and student project to celebrate 20 years of peer mentoring in widening participation. The oldest and longest running peer support project here at the University of Edinburgh has served some 2000 widening participation students over that time in ‘the fellowship and solidarity of community’ (Darder, 2015). Add in the same number of mentors, and you see we’ve had a project with almost 4000 students working together for each other with generous small acts of solidarity. You can read more about the project in a previous blog post: Twenty years of peer support: The fellowship and solidarity of community.

Classism on campus

Our presentation celebrated the success of our relationships of solidarity in peer mentoring but also addressed why such a project is required.  As our students have told me over the last 20 years ‘classism is all over campus – but nobody wants to talk about it’.  As Diane Reay (2016a) writes, social class in Higher Education is still the elephant in the room. However, working class students can complete their undergraduate studies ‘with a strong sense of being bruised and battered by the whole experience’ (Reay 2016b, p70). It is certainly the case that ‘the majority of working-class students are trapped in the present as ‘onlookers’ on student life’ (Reay 2017, p125). The classism that our students experience is part of a continual project of distinction enacted by their more privileged student (and staff) colleagues.

Our presentation shared stories of student experience, related to classism, which have been generously discussed with me at various stages over the last two decades. Some stories are from last month, and others from many years ago – unfortunately, they all remain relevant today.

‘’It was my first day at uni and I was like so nervous. My mum and dad had been encouraging me about the first day and to know that I’ve worked so hard to get there, like anybody else. No one in our family has ever been to uni before so they were all so proud of me and excited for me. It was a 9am first lecture, I think there must have been like 350 people in there, but I sat at the back. The lecturer came in and I was thinking to myself, ok this is it. And the first thing he said was ‘hands up all those whose parents haven’t been to university before’. And my stomach just dropped, I didn’t know where to look. I put my head down. I thought, I’ve been found out.’’

‘’I had my first meeting with my supervisor and I had prepared so much for it in advance. I thought it was going really well, you know, my ideas, methodology; timeline and reading were all set out. At the end of the meeting, my supervisor sat forward in her seat and said to me that she could see that I was a rough diamond, but that she’d get me into shape. I literally just went completely silent.’’

‘’At the start of one of my tutorials last semester we got talking about whether or not private education should be banned, people were giving their views. Then the tutor turned around and said “well if we ban private schools, who am I gonna teach?” And I was sitting there and I was like, “wait a minute, I’m just from the school down the road.’’

‘’I’ve made it to 4th year, my mum is so happy for me. I’m really happy to say that I’ve also made two really good friends, they are from a similar background to me.  And there is a tutor and a lecturer on our course that are really great, so easy to talk to.  I really love my course; I know I chose the right thing to study. But outside of that, I’m so sad to say that I hate this place.’’

‘’Your accent is definitely an issue. My friends have quite a distinct accent like me and I then I notice how that’s not always treated properly, you know there’s quite an elitist group of people. I’ll be honest, but it’s not easy to say, I’ve been bullied for the last few years because of my working class accent.’’

These stories illustrate just a few of the daily experiences of our students, but they are not anecdotal; I have 20 years’ worth of stories. Rather, they simply express what it’s like to be on campus as a working class student. Classism, as Bernice Lott (2002) writes, results in students being excluded, devalued, discounted and separated. You can see this clearly from the few stories shared above. We can think about the ‘two potential domains of classism as institutional classism and interpersonal classism’ (Langhout et al, 2007). Institutionally, we can think of the organisational structures, policies, curriculum, pedagogy and procedures that facilitate classism. While at the interpersonal level, we can think of the interactions that students have with other students as well as staff.

Lott (2002) outlines that, ‘some students learn that their voices will be heard, that they count, and that they will be recognized. Whereas other students learn the opposite lesson, reinforcing their general experience of exclusion from the world of mainstream expectations and achievement’. The economist, Thomas Piketty (2020), reminds us that ‘there is never anything “natural” about social inequality. It is always profoundly ideological and political’. Through this lens, we must ask ourselves about the inequality on campus that we see through classism. Given that it is an ideological or political choice, who is making this choice as the way to live on campus? As Piketty asserts, ‘Every society has no choice but to make sense of its inequalities’. Likewise, on campus we must make sense of and reject these inequalities.

Relationships of solidarity

In contrast to the experience of classism, our peer-mentoring programme creates the environmental conditions where our widening participation students can flourish and excel. However, outside of peer mentoring, these conditions are not found uniformly across campus. Inconsistency can create gaps in pastoral care and pedagogical practice that results in the spread of environmental conditions, which do not allow our students to flourish and excel. Peer mentoring occupies these spaces – staff, mentors and mentees all stand together in relationships of solidarity that are built from collective labour. As Davidson et al (2013) remind us, ‘campus relationships matter. When students form meaningful relationships with others connected to the institution, they are more likely to persist’.

‘’I don’t like to say it, but some staff really aren’t interested in students. So they certainly aren’t going to be interested in a working class girl who can’t quite work out if she’s in the right place. But my mentor, like he’s just been the opposite of all of that.  He’s also from a working class background and he just gets it and his support has been vital in me still being here. That’s why I became a mentor as well, to support someone like me who might be feeling like I was when it was first year.’’

‘’So I got very lonely, like really lonely and a bit afraid. But then my mentor, well, I was just able to talk to her about how I really felt. I didn’t need to pretend everything was great and I was going out all the time and getting A’s for everything. It was just like having a friend at the university really, and we are still friends, this was an absolute blessing.’’

‘’Some people might think this is a bit silly but I told my gran – I live with her at home – about my mentor and all the help he’d given me. My gran told me that she never knew that there would be so many nice people at university that would be concerned about other people in this really helpful way. She said it’s a great gift to be generous in that way. She said that I was like that as well and asked if I could become a mentor. That’s the moment I knew that I wanted to be a mentor.’’

‘’Meeting my peer mentor is one of the most precious experiences I have had here in Edinburgh.’’

A new way to live

Together, as Paulo Freire might say, we want to denounce classism on campus and reject this way of living. Together, we want to announce how we want to live. The relational and dialogical elements of peer mentoring are a blue print for how the institution could function as a whole. We must begin to see how ‘others live through us.  We are not isolated, autonomous selves; rather, we are always connected’ (Roberts, 2013, p41). We reject the coldness that can be found on campus; the distant aloofness, which fractures any possibility of connectedness, let alone belonging. We want to celebrate and legitimise the quiet, unnoticed forms of gentle solidarity enacted across campus and see them multiplied – small actions that are hugely impactful. Peer mentoring is a key example of this. We want a campus life that embraces the notion of caring about others; that it is warm, with a humanising pedagogy and full of Freire’s pedagogy of hope and love (Freire, 2021).

Watch Neil’s presentation on this topic at the Learning & Teaching Conference on the Conference website.


Darder, A. (2015). Chapter Two: Paulo Freire and the Continuing Struggle to Decolonize Education. Counterpoints, 500, pp39-54.

Davidson, C., & Wilson, K. (2013). Reassessing Tinto’s concepts of social and academic integration in student retention. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 15(3), 329-346.

Freire, P. (2021). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Langhout, R. D., Rosselli, F., & Feinstein, J. (2007). Assessing classism in academic settings. The Review of Higher Education, 30(2), 145-184.

Lott, B. (2002). Cognitive and behavioral distancing from the poor. American Psychologist, 57(2), 100.

Piketty, T. (2020). Capital and ideology. Harvard University Press.

Roberts, P. (2013). Paulo Freire in the 21st century: Education, dialogue, and transformation. Paradigm.

Reay, D. (2016a). Social class in UK higher education: still an elephant in the room. In Routledge handbook of the sociology of higher education (pp. 131-141). Routledge.

Reay, D, (2016b) ‘“Outsiders on the inside”: Working-class students at UK universities’ in Stich, A E, Freie, C (eds) The working classes and higher education. New York: Routledge, p 70.

Reay, D (2017) Miseducation – inequality, education and the working classes. Bristol: Policy Press.

Dr Neil Speirs

Neil’s role involves working as a manager, practitioner and researcher in a number of areas concerning widening participation & access and related policy.  He has strategic oversight and management of a number of self-generated community projects.  These projects along with his teaching and research are centred around a number of areas of interest that span from primary education through secondary, further and higher education. A few of these areas of interest and specialisms are; the transition from primary to secondary education, the academic achievement of working class young males, the sociology of sport, widening participation student transitions, the equity of student experience, social reproduction & critical pedagogy, the working class mature student, the hidden curriculum, peer-related pedagogies and autoethnography.

Project Co-authors

Gabriele Negro, Widening Participation Officer; Ceilidh Alexander, Mathematics and Music, 4th Year; Eleanor Arrowsmith, Spanish and History, 4th year; Kalim Aziz, Neuroscience, 4th year; Erin Brown, Law, 2nd year; Dawn Lawson, Scottish Literature, 3rd year; Aoife Leong, English Literature, 2nd year; Jenin Ola, Medicine, 1st year; Eve Simpson, Politics, 4th year; Darcey Spenner, Ancient History and Classical Archaeology, 3rd year; Megan Stewart, Linguistics and Social Anthropology, 1st year.

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