Chris Cunningham

Dr Christopher Cunningham recently completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Essex. His research uses policy and discourse analysis to explore the relationship between widening participation within English universities and political narratives of social mobility.

Growing up, university was not something I was conscious of. My parents had some friends who had a son who was at the University of Cambridge, but my parents’ perception of him was that although he read lots of books and was very good at playing chess, practically speaking, he struggled to open a tin of beans.

After taking GCSE resits at my local sixth form college, I started to study A levels but then left after one year, also giving up my job in a fast-food restaurant, to become a Trainee Negotiator at an Estate Agents. Wearing a shirt and tie to work made me feel and look posh compared to my family, whose work attire consisted of overalls. When one of my friends went to Brunel university after college, I drove down with some other mates to visit him during fresher’s week with the aim of helping him to settle into SU bar life. We were rudely awakened at about 4am by a fire alarm, which apparently was quite common, and I had to leave my make-shift bed on the floor to stand outside in the freezing cold while the university security team reset the alarm and gave everyone a talking to – something about smoking rules within the accommodation block.   

Fast-forward fifteen years and I was standing outside of the accommodation block at the University of Essex, dressed in a security team uniform and giving a group of students a lecture about the no smoking policy within university accommodation – there is always one flat that thinks covering a smoke detector with a sock is enough to outwit the alarm system! I became a university Patrol Officer after being made redundant from my job in a local printing factory – one of many jobs that I did since giving up my Estate Agent career of six months to travel India aged eighteen. When I returned from travelling, I worked a range of different jobs for a temping agency, mostly warehouse work, call centres, dish washing etc. I travelled again, worked some more, and then got married aged twenty-one, having three children by the time I was thirty.

I joined the University of Essex in 2007. It was not long before I became inspired by the people that I met, both staff and students, to return to education. I began in 2010 with the Open University, studying part-time while I worked shifts within the security team. I would long for the out-of-term periods when I could slide off to a computer lab during a quiet night shift to read some books or write an essay. It was during this period that student protests about increasing tuition fees were gathering pace. With many of the students knowing me by name, and knowing that they had inspired me to study, keeping peace on campus was a matter of communication rather than enforcement. Some of my colleagues were sceptical about my approach to security, but they couldn’t ague with the fact that it worked. It was no surprise to my teammates when I made the announcement in 2013 that I was leaving Security to become a student; when the banter came about me becoming a ‘tree hugger’, I would give as good as I got by telling them that, one day they would be locking my office door.

Some of the guys working in the IT section, I had known from my teenage years. When they heard I was leaving Security to become a student, they offered me a job as an IT Student Assistant, which involved looking after the printers on campus, topping up with paper, changing toner, and general maintenance. This job was my ‘bread and butter’ throughout my BA Sociology with Social Anthropology, MA Sociology, and Ph.D. Sociology. I worked many other jobs on campus too over this ten-year period, including for the marketing team, resident support, the theatre, the library, and later, as a researcher and teacher.

Experiencing my university from different perspectives encouraged me to focus my doctoral research on universities; more specifically, on the relationship between higher education and social mobility. My research critiques the ‘sector’ of higher education and problematises the concept of social mobility. Without going into depth about my research here, it is enough to say that what university has meant and means to me, is beyond measurement. The ‘university experience’ that I have witnessed first-hand, for both myself and others, is about people. It is about genuine relationships built upon the sharing of ideas and experiences. At the time of writing, I am awaiting viva; what happens from here remains to be seen. I have had an amazing university experience spanning seventeen years, and I have met some wonderful people along the way.

Christopher Cunningham

University of Essex, Department of Sociology