What is a Class Act Officer and why every college should have one

Class Act Officers play an important role in helping students from low socio-economic backgrounds overcome the unique challenges they face at Cambridge

The first time I felt out of place at Cambridge was during a talk about working for the UN. I arrived expecting to hear advice on work experience and masters’ programmes, but left feeling disheartened after the lecturer suggested a somewhat different approach. She asked for a show of hands if we knew someone working in the UN, and advised us to use our contacts, as she expected ‘lots of us to know someone who knows someone’. And well, she wasn’t wrong. 

Every time the buzzwords ‘network’ or ‘contacts’ surface in conversation, I feel further and further away from the feeling that we’re all on a level playing field. My family friends aren’t international diplomats or investment bankers but swimming teachers and Bodyshop consultants. My dad can source me a mean second-hand bike, but not a summer internship, and no matter how much we might laugh that the former is of more use to a Cambridge student, it doesn’t resolve the reality that students here don’t all come from the same background or face the same struggles. 

It can be so lonely and discouraging to hear conversations about second homes, May Balls and expensive gap years when you know back home your family is living paycheck to paycheck, only one unexpected bill away from financial struggle. Hearing people discuss politics or the need for austerity ‘as theoretical concepts’, when you’ve seen first-hand the stress and anxiety this has caused your family. Seeing Crushbridges directed at specific private schools with fees that exceed your annual family income.

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I know I’m not the only one who struggles with worries that maybe I don’t fit in after all, and tries to overcompensate in a desperate attempt to prove that I belong here. From stigma about discussing your background to a lack of college-level initiatives, I found it difficult to find people I could relate to – I didn’t even realise Class Act, (the CUSU initiative to bring together students from low socio-economic backgrounds) existed until the end of Lent term – meaning I missed out on two terms worth of support when first arriving in Cambridge.

Class Act is a CUSU campaign for students who identify with any of the above backgrounds, or any other social, educational, cultural or economic disadvantage not listed | Photo credits CUSU Class Act

Class Act Officers can play a crucial part in this initial adjustment period. A ‘Class Act Officer’ is a member of a JCR who works alongside an Access or Equal Opportunities officer to speak up for students from low socio-economic backgrounds at college-level. Whilst Access Officers typically focus on encouraging candidates from low socio-economic backgrounds to apply to the college in the first place, Class Act Officers can provide a level of support for students once they have arrived that’s currently missing from the rest of the uni. 

The role of a Class Act Officer ranges from organising social events and career talks to representing Class Act students on college issues such as college bursaries or rent increases. Class Act officers can play an integral role in alleviating imposter syndrome and making college feel like home, regardless of your background.

This is even more pressing during the current crisis. Although everyone is learning remotely, this experience is fundamentally different if you don’t have adequate wifi or a separate working space, or if you have to combine your degree with caring responsibilities or employment, potentially increasing exposure to coronavirus or resulting in a loss of income due to being furloughed.  It’s in these circumstances that students would benefit most from having a Class Act Officer to represent their concerns at college level. And yet painfully few colleges do have a Class Act Officer, elected by self-identifying Class Act-aligned students, to fulfil these roles. 

Ryan Bogle, Class Officer for Cambridge University Labour Club, is part of a campaign to encourage Girton JCR to introduce a Class Act Officer. He explains the importance of the movement and difficulties faced by Class Act students.“We’ve learned that tackling class-based discrimination is harder than we’d expected, because so often our struggles are invisible or go on behind closed doors. From the humiliating name of the “hardship fund” to the unique challenges of living in one of Cambridge’s most expensive colleges, with little access to additional, college-level support, there’s so many things a class act officer can begin to tackle, truly representing working-class voices.”

Ryan Bogle and Katie Clark are two of the people involved in Girton’s campaign for a Class Act officer | Photo credits Ryan Bogle

Dishearteningly, it’s not just the lack of awareness about the importance of a Class Act Officer which has prevented JCRs from establishing these positions. Indeed, St John’s JCR previously rejected introducing a Class Act Officer, viewing the role as unnecessary. When approached for comment, the co-president explained that “the role was indeed perceived as redundant considering our committee already has 21 roles including six equal opportunities roles as well as an access officer… [who] could provide for any needs specific to class disparities.” 

Meanwhile, when some members of the JCR and student body at Christ’s proposed having a Class Act officer on the JCR, some students at Christs’ argued that a Class Act Officer would highlight class divisions, instead proposing the alternative title “Hardship Officer”, although no further action has been taken on this. When contacted for comment, the president of Christ’s JCR made it clear that these comments were not a reflection on the JCR’s position, with the JCR remaining neutral on the matter and a referendum to be held in the near future. 

Some members of Christ’s have argued that a Class Officer could highlight class divisions | Photo credits: Ella Fogg

Yet, despite these controversies, the benefits of having a Class Act Officer on JCRs are clear. Kirstie Goodchild, the Class Act Officer at Fitzwilliam, points out that whilst ‘Access’ can be considered more of a broad role, helping those from diverse backgrounds to get into Cambridge, a Class Act Officer can take an additional welfare role, “dealing more with the needs of Class Act students once they’re here.” She comments “Class Act students face unique financial and educational challenges at Cambridge, which statistics show render them more likely to drop out of struggle at university.”

As Class Act Officer, Kirstie has attempted to overcome this by providing support, resources and socials for Class Act students. This has ranged from arranging free music show tickets to professional cooking lessons, as well as plans to provide study skills sessions and subsidised tickets to formals in the future.  Class Act Officers also provide support and are “a port of call for students who might be struggling or feeling like an outsider due to their background”.  The importance of Class Act Officers, therefore, is that they can respond to the unique challenges faced by students from less-represented socio-economic backgrounds, and truly help to make the university a more welcoming environment.

It’s time we stopped pretending that contextual inequalities disappear the minute we throw on a gown, and start work on providing specific support to the students we claim to be a welcoming space for. Having a Class Act Officer in every college is instrumental in order to achieve this.

Students who identify with Class Act and would like to find out more information on how to get involved with the campaign can access the Facebook page here. 

Featured image credits: Ella Fogg; CUSU Class Act.