The students of the University of York just voted, 51 percent to 49 percent, to institute the position of Working Class and Social Mobility Officer as a new position on YUSU’s team. I, like many York students, spent much of the weeks leading up to this vote pawing over the topic in agonising detail with flatmates over dinner and with other students in the library. The interest that the referendum has sparked seems to be grounded in the essential instability of class as a concept. Whereas it is comparatively easy to define the people being represented by the positions of BME, Women’s, on LGBT+ officer, class is the most transparently socially constructed of our social constructs.
The new position can theoretically be held by anyone, but the consensus seems to be that it would rather miss the point if it wasn’t a working class person taking on the job. But people rise and fall within the class system, over the course of a lifetime and even before they get to university. So who gets to be the arbiter of which class each student on this campus belongs to? It’s a long-standing debate between my parents, both born working class, whether or not they have to forfeit such a label now that they’ve built a comfortable middle class life for themselves complete with house, car, just north of 2.4 kids, and that unnecessarily large newspaper middle class people can’t resist buying on Sundays.
As with most votes held in our vibrant student democracy, this one was decided by a relatively small group of people who care a good deal more than the rest of the campus. And if we’re going to accept that part of addressing students’ needs means addressing the problems of the specific groups that society has sought to dole out problems unequally to, then doing so for working class students is as meaningful and distinct a category as the others. But the shaky foundations of this new position have also inevitably pointed to the shaky foundations of the whole enterprise of having different officers for different social groups.
If YUSU is going to appoint an officer to address the inadequacies of the class system in our country, of course they’ll have to answer the question of ‘what is class?’, a question that many historians and sociologists spend their careers failing to answer. To some, that in itself is farcical. Why are people primarily elected to perform an administrative role also forced to grapple with some of the greatest philosophical problems of our time?
As a result some students regard the whole thing as the twisted child of identity politics, an attempt to stomp out injustice by further entrenching the categories by which people are treated unjustly. But this is the kind of tunnel vision that you can usually rely on centrists for. The broader problem is that student welfare itself is as unstable a concept as class; as hostile to easy definition or summation as the concepts at the centre of our most tedious thinkpieces. If students are suffering because of broader political and cultural issues, then who’s to say that such issues aren’t the domain of student politics?
It’s an open question, and one that most of us, judging by the lack of engagement with student politics, would prefer not to answer rather than answer poorly. It’s not as sexy a question as ‘what is class’. But as funding for universities continues to be cut and fees likely increased, reminding the university that time and money have to be given to issues of student welfare means answering unsexy student politics questions like that.