‘The student experience’ and the remaking of contemporary studenthood: A critical intervention

Pötschulat, Maike, Moran, Marie and Jones, Paul (2021) ‘The student experience’ and the remaking of contemporary studenthood: A critical intervention. The Sociological Review, 69 (1). pp. 3-20. ISSN 0038-0261


‘The student experience’ is a formulation that will be familiar to many reading this article; increasingly the term has come to stand in for an imprecise set of values and practices around higher education study. Despite the fuzziness that characterises its use, ‘student experience talk’ has gained traction in education policy and rankings, academic research, and amongst students themselves. After initially drawing from Raymond Williams to situate ‘the student experience’ as a keyword across policy, marketing and educational domains, we analyse contemporary usage of the term in: (1) students’ own accounts of their engagements with the city in which they study; and (2) academic social science. A membership category when used by undergraduate students, the term serves to obfuscate a market logic in which achieving the student experience is an aspirational endeavour linking disparate place-based consumption practices in their university city. Drawing on the Bourdieusian distinction between categories of practice and categories of analysis, we argue that the contemporary deployment of ‘the student experience’ across popular and policy spaces does not mean that academics should import it uncritically into their analysis. On the contrary: the reification of this category of practice is precisely what has enabled the scramble for its attainment and management. Rather than allowing the embedding and normalisation of terms such as ‘the student experience’, the role of critical social science should be to unpack these muddled categories to avoid calling into being and reproducing what they seem to only describe.

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