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We're trying to do things differently: the challenges of relationships and recognition in higher education

The BA Social Sciences programme at King’s College London – launched in September 2019 – is trying to live out a set of principles and practices not commonly found in higher education. These include: an emphasis on social science for social justice, forms of direct democratic decision-making, alternative assessment practices, and a focus on small-group, participatory approaches to learning. The co-created research project was undertaken by ten students and three staff members from the BA programme. Together, the team gathered and analysed qualitative data derived from interviews with members of the programme community, in an attempt to understand the journey of the programme’s first year and its efforts to put its principles into practice.

Although focused on a single programme, the book’s analysis has wide relevance for the field of higher education. It grapples with various enduring and important questions facing students and practitioners, such as how to meaningfully foreground democracy, partnership, emotional care, and ‘engaged pedagogy’, the role and limits of free speech in the classroom, and how to deconstruct enduring currents of inequality and marginalisation. It covers some of the persistent challenges faced by the sector, including issues around marketisation, institutional control, wider educational inequality, racism and classism, employment rights, as well as contemporary movements – such as those grounded in ‘decolonising the university’ – and moments – such as the recent universities strike and the impact of Covid-19.

Project team

The project team was made up of postgraduate research student Freya Aquarone and 10 BA Social Sciences students: Laura Nehéz-Posony, Propa Rezwana Anwar, Samira Salam, Eleni Koutsouri, Minkyung Kim, SooYeon Suh, Tope Mayomi, Julia Pilarska, Emily Houghton and Yara Boodai.


The project was oriented around the following research question: 'how have students and staff on the BA Social Sciences programme experienced the programme’s philosophy and ethos in practice, what are their perspectives on the challenges and successes of implementing that philosophy and ethos?'

The book's analysis does not cover every aspect of the programme. Rather, we were led by the core themes which emerged from our data; these centred around the role and nature of educational relationships. We analyse this focus on relationships through a common social justice concept known as ‘recognition’. We explore the various ways in which the programme can be seen to embed – or at least seek to embed – recognition in its practice, as well as how this can be problematised. There are thus gaps in the scope of our research (for instance, there is limited discussion of the programme curriculum, or its academic disciplines/themes). Nonetheless, the breadth of participants’ focal points in their narratives – covering issues of emotional care and concern, hierarchy and partnership, HE access, class/‘race’ consciousness, and trust and freedom of speech in the classroom – clearly demonstrates that there is much more to a programme than its curriculum. This is not to deny that reading lists / thematic and disciplinary structures are important, or that ours are imperfect or need work, but it does indicate that – even when there are no starkly obvious concerns around these aspects of a programme – there are many more things to consider when it comes to promoting social justice in education.

One aspect of the programme which was highlighted with particular consistency by our research participants (and which is also emphasised in official programme documents) is the importance of ‘co-creation’ or ‘co-production’ – that is, on partnership between students and staff in the common task of building meaningful educational experiences. As authors, we see the principle of co-creation as a core part of the text's aims and scope. We hope it achieves this in two ways: a) by offering an in-depth review of the aspirations, successes and challenges entailed by the relatively distinctive co-productive ethos of the programme, and b) as itself an exercise in reflexivity and co-production – both literally in the creation of the text and in (we hope) usefully contributing to the future of the programme and associated practice in HE.


This project drew on the principles of Participatory Action Research (PAR). PAR has many definitions, but at its core, it is about people becoming researchers of their own social context in order to better understand and/or change it (Galletta and Torre, 2019). In education research, this tends to mean “center[ing] the wisdom and experience of students [...] and educators, positioning them as architects of research rather than objects of study” (Galletta and Torre, 2019:1).

Accordingly, our research team was made up of ten students and three staff members from the Social Sciences programme. The majority of the research team (9/13) were also research participants. As a team, we worked collaboratively to discuss the project scope and design, to build our research questions and methodology, to collect and analyse data and, finally, to write up our findings. This book is based primarily on data from qualitative interviews and focus groups with members of the BA Social Sciences programme. Nineteen students (out of 43 in the community at the time) were interviewed, and eight staff (all but one of the core teaching staff from year one, plus a member of the wider staff team).

All members of the programme community were invited to participate. Some people were individually approached because it was felt they would have particularly valuable insights to share. Thus, sampling was partly purposive. All interviews and focus groups were semi-structured, based on flexible guideline questions. All staff interviews were conducted by staff members of the research team. The majority of student interviews (which took place both one-to-one and in pairs) were conducted by student members of the research team. As student members of the team had little or no prior experience of conducting empirical research, opportunities for training and support were provided throughout the project. For instance, we had several team meetings in the early stages in which research paradigms, data collection approaches, and ethical considerations were collectively explored. The team was provided with reading materials on methodology and one-to-one support to help them prepare for conducting and analysing interviews.

Summary of findings

Throughout the book we explore how participants’ experiences of the programme can be understood in relation to the concept of ‘recognition’. We explore ways that the programme can be seen to uphold recognition as ‘love, care and kindness’ (drawing on the work of Honneth and hooks), through participant descriptions of the programme community’s openness around mental health, its concern for wellbeing (on the part of both students and staff), and its commitment to non-hierarchical relationships.

We also explore how recognition is upheld as ‘partnership and equality’ (drawing on the work of Hegel, Freire and hooks), through participant descriptions of how the programme’s use of collective democratic decision-making practices and pedagogical emphasis on student participation and engagement leads to substantive forms of student empowerment and to deconstructing traditional educational power relationships. In addition to these promising findings, our data also offer a great deal of scope for critical reflection about how things could be better. For instance, in relation to ‘love, care and kindness’ we explore the need for clearer procedures on handling interpersonal conflict, for stronger lines of communication, for building greater shared understanding of institutional constraints, and for finding more time to spend together as a community. In relation to ‘equality and partnership’ we explore the need to build skills and awareness in inclusive, critically reflexive decision-making as well as to improve levels of ‘engagement’ in community, both in democratic fora and the classroom.

In the final, and largest, chapter of the book we critically challenge the previous conceptualisations of ‘recognition’ in our analysis - all of which rely on ‘universalist’ ideas about treating people ‘the same’. Instead, we explore how recognition can require a commitment to the ‘politics of difference’ – that is, to acknowledging specific injustices suffered by specific groups. With this new conceptualisation in mind, we interrogate the implications for the programme through analysis of data which covers themes of marginalisation and harm (drawing on the work of Taylor, Fanon and others). This analysis highlights the need to improve substantive diversity (not just surface internationalism) in HE access and to develop greater critical consciousness as a community about the fact that people’s positionalities have a powerful impact on their experiences of the programme (and mean that not everybody feels as included in the community as some would claim). This section also raises critical questions around clarifying the meaning of openness and free speech in education. We explore how to create learning spaces based on openness (where people feel they can be ‘heard’ even where their views differ from the majority), how to build greater collective accountability through shared values around harm-prevention and conflict resolution, and how recognition might require us to foreground experiences and histories of structural marginalisation.

Our analysis also acknowledges that the programme’s ability to respond to these crucial critiques cannot be detached from its context. Our data pointed to the challenges of working within contemporary HE, including trends of marketisation and instrumentalisation (Hess, 2009) and the associated increase in workload pressures, consumerist framings of education, and resource constraints; these were seen as placing real strain on attempts to embed recognition. Other (connected) challenges identified related to institutional structures and the way many decisions affecting the programme – eg around assessment practice or admissions – are out of the community’s hands (and clash with its attempts at democratic self-governance). Many of these challenges were framed by entrenched, systemic inequalities, such as the historical and contemporary marginalisation of particular groups of people within both HE and wider society.


The main objective of the research was to produce a piece of critically reflective writing which might benefit not only our own programme community but also other students, practitioners and policy-makers with an interest in democratic or progressive approaches in HE. Enabling better resource-sharing and bridge-building between researchers and practitioners across HE relies on critically reflective work. Yet such work requires time and headspace – both of which, it is well-documented, are in short supply in education sectors.

By documenting attempts to ‘do things differently’ in HE through the lens of real-life practice, we hope our research can make a useful contribution to discussions around the future of HE and around embedding collective reflection and collaboration in HE work. In the interests of disseminating our findings as widely and accessibly as possible, we have printed a limited run of hard-copies of the book which we are distributing free of charge, and have also published an open-access e-book.

You can order a free hard copy of the book here or download the e-book here.

Project status: Completed


  • Funding body: London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership (LISS DTP)
  • Amount: £9,000
  • Period: January 2020 - November 2020


You can order a free hard copy of the book here or download the e-book here. To find out more about the project, please email Freya Aquarone.