Debate: Should we have a Working Class Liberation Officer?

For: a necessary first step

By Grace Lavender & Silas Lehane

Earlier this month Elle Glenny, the University of Edinburgh’s Taught Postgraduate Representative, proposed the creation of a new Working Class Liberation Officer. Her proposal could not have been more timely. At a university where over a third of students were privately educated, working class students are certainly a group in need of better representation.

In assessing the need for a Working Class Liberation Officer, there are two key areas that need to be addressed. First, whether working class people at the University of Edinburgh are a group in need of liberation, and second, which students would actually be represented by this Liberation officer.
On their Liberation page, The University of Edinburgh Students’ Association outline the need for Liberation Officers as follows: “some groups in society experience structural oppression – that is to say that they are disadvantaged by a system which prioritises and privileges the lives and experiences of others over their own. This oppression may manifest in discrimination, harassment, violence, economic or legal inequality […] we must focus on dismantling the hierarchies which allow this oppression to continue’”

In deciding whether the Students’ Association should have a Working Class Liberation Officer, we need only consider whether this description applies to working class students.

At an institution where only 18.7 per cent of students identify as working class, and where these students are more likely to quit their studies and struggle to fit in socially, the need for a Working Class Liberation officer is blatant. Under-representation is far from the only issue facing working-class students in Edinburgh, however.

It would be truly naïve to suggest that classism is no longer an issue in the UK, especially when it comes to higher education. Any student from a working class background can recall a myriad of tales of encountering entrenched, classist attitudes within the student community. The ‘reading week is skiing week’ culture that pervades many students’ approach to their time in education stands as a stark reminder that higher education has continually been dominated, both demographically and culturally, by privileged communities. Who amongst us has not heard another student consider themselves ‘poor’ when they’ve spent too much of their loan after a big weekend? Classism breeds a culture of ignorance and prejudice.

Classism is a systemic, structural issue that only increases the higher up the education chain a student climbs. Edinburgh is an expensive city, and the university is severely lacklustre in its attempts to combat this for poorer students. The rise of luxury accommodation reflects Edinburgh’s skewed priorities, and further marginalises poorer students.

It is evident there is a class problem both in the university system and its community, and this merits action.

Admittedly, it is difficult to exactly define what it means to be working class. Elle Glenny suggests that the Working Class Liberation Officer should work in the interests of all those who self-identify as working class. This is also the case for The Students’ Association’s four other Liberation Officers, who represent women, minority ethnic, disabled and LGBT+ students.

‘Working class’ is a complex identity, reflecting income levels and wider social connotations; so naturally, drawing strict lines between working and middle class is challenging. This complicates the nature of who a Liberation Officer would represent.

But such criticism fails to engage with the realities of all classification and processes of representation. All social categories, both oppressed and privileged, cannot be delineated by simple criteria. What does it mean to be a woman? Should you have to sit a test to be represented by the LGBT+ Liberation Officer?

By suggesting that the new Liberation Officer should represent all those who self-identify as working class, Glenny acknowledges that putting exact labels on who is and isn’t working class could lead to further stigmatisation of a group who is already at risk of being stereotyped. All identities are by their very nature subjective, complex and contextual, but this should never stop us trying to understand them.

A Liberation Officer is just the first step towards tackling classism at university. But it is important nonetheless; appointing an officer stands as a real, tangible recognition of the devastating problem of structural socio-economic oppression that affects a majority across society, and a stigmatised minority in elitist academic spaces.

The Students’ Association and the student community must tackle this issue, and this begins with affirming its existence.

Against: too hard to define

By Max Hunter

It’s difficult to know where to start when writing an article like this. The most enduring and powerful argument against the creation of the role of Working Class Liberation Officer is that nobody – not the writer, you the reader, nor any number of social theorists, cultural anthropologists or political scientists – know what ‘the working class’ means. What does it mean to be working class? What is the working class? How do you know if a person is working class? How does that person know if they are working class?

In Elle Glenny’s interview with The Student she proposes that “self-identification” would be the way forward here; after all, it’s the way we quantify other stigmatised communities, and aren’t these situations seamlessly transferable? Put simply: they are not. The ‘working class’ is a complex, heavily subjective socio-economic and cultural descriptor, not an ethnicity, gender or sexual preference. In fact, it’s outdated: it shouldn’t be controversial to say that Marxist classifications of the proletariat and bourgeoisie make less sense than they did before in the globalised modern economy.

The Edinburgh University Students’ Association currently has four Liberation Officers: these serve the Black and Minority Ethnic, disabled, LGBT+ and women’s communities respectively. The thing that unites these groups is that they are quantifiable, recognisable and, crucially, we can all agree that they exist. To equate the working class – whatever that means in 2018 – to these groups is disingenuous, inappropriate and a waste of everybody’s time. We stand at a crossroads: choose the wrong path and student politics will start to satirise itself.

If Edinburgh’s student community is so overwhelmed by discord, social division and class war that we need a Liberation Officer to represent the interests of working people, then the student’s association is clearly failing in its duties; furthermore our society is obviously on the brink of meltdown. But there is no such discord. Edinburgh has a privileged student body – almost nobody would be sheltered enough to deny that. That doesn’t mean that all self-identifying minorities need an elected commissioner to fight for their interests. Does that seem like the path to a happy and united student body? Rather, it sounds like a recipe for sectional interests and conflict.

In writing this article, I don’t claim to know or understand the struggle of someone who fought their way to Edinburgh against real structural disadvantages: that is a struggle I will never know. I know that I’m privileged. We all have sympathy for those people at Edinburgh who feel secluded, isolated and lacking in “economic, social and cultural capital”.

Edinburgh will always have people who feel like they don’t belong here – it is the duty of every single one of us to change their minds. But we can do that with acts of kindness, friendliness and inclusion. Apart from the fact that the British working classes are more than capable of liberating themselves, I’ll conclude with this: if we can’t agree on what a community is, then it doesn’t need a Liberation Officer.

Image: The University of Edinburgh

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