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The Impact of Identity Cards on Student Life in Higher Education

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There is plenty of research undertaken on the subject of public surveillance and that within the British education system. Lyon’s theory of the ‘card cartel’ focuses on the fundamental changes it creates for the definitions of ‘citizen’ and ‘state’ as well as the relationship between these two concepts. He uses Marxist theory to argue that identification gives the bourgeoisie, the middle- and upper-classes, power over the proletariat, the working class (2009). Using the example of a passport, he argues identification documents are a form of regulation as it can be used to monitor movements (Lyon 2009). Taylor puts this into the context of education, discussing the use of fingerprint identification and closed-circuit television (CCTV) in British schools in order to argue that schoolchildren are becoming increasingly watched, stating that 85-90% of British schools have CCTV (2013: 16). Rovai advocates for the use of identity cards on the grounds that they help create a sense of community, establishing an association between students, especially distance learners, and the university (2003). Despite the large foundation of research into surveillance in education, we identified a noticeable gap in research papers in the field of identity cards specifically as well as the student experience. Arami, Koller and Krimmers’ paper it explores a pilot project of multifunction student identity cards at Vienna University of Economics and Business Administration in 2000 (2004). The identity card in this project was the ‘power card’ and its functions include allowing students to photocopy, open doors, access student records as well as acting as a form of identification. Their research found that 88.9% of the students they asked were overall satisfied with the card (Arami, Koller and Krimmer 2004: 6). However, this research does not take place in Britain and does not focus solely on education but instead the entire public sector of Austria. Therefore, we decided to research into the use of identity cards in higher education focusing on the student experience. We decided to conduct the research at Queen Mary University as this is the higher education institute at which we study, making our research more accessible. Queen Mary University requires students to carry with them their student card on campus, it is used for examinations, registration, access to buildings and to take out library books (QMPlus, 2019). Failure to produce this card can result in being forced to leave a building or even campus. Carrying an identity card is a concept which has been normalised despite the heavy impact it has on the everyday life of a student at Queen Mary University. Our research question asks how the use of identity cards impacts a student’s experience. This area of research is important because the normalisation of identity cards can lead to the creation of a ‘culture of suspicion’ by introducing the compulsory carrying of proof that a person belongs there (Lyons 2009: 70). In the context of higher education, in which a large proportion of the working class is already pushed away by the high costs associated, an atmosphere of inclusion is necessary and mandatory identity cards could be a move away from this. Our research aims to examine the impact of identity cards on student life in higher education and the possible wider implications of this.

The methodological approach we decided to take was one which collected qualitative data as our research question is aimed at investigating experience which could be difficult to represent in quantitative data. Our methodological approach was also a post-structural one, meaning it investigates the source and impacts of social structures and with this, power relations and the discourse surrounding in (Wright, 2004). In the context of our research project, the social and power structures we wished to examine was that which is created and maintained through the everyday surveillance implemented by identity cards. A phenomenological approach, one which believes social meaning is produced and reproduced by individuals (Kafle, 2011), was also utilised as we wanted to explore the extent to which the normalisation of security is reproduced by students. As well as this, as much as we could we employ the use of reflexivity to ensure that as researchers we are critical of power structures or bias which may be involved to ensure good quality and ethical results (Guillemin and Gillam, 2004). My group decided that, since our research aims to examine experience, a key focus of our research should be interviews. Interviews are a conversation in which the researcher attempts to draw out information from the interviewee to create a window into the life of another by drawing out a narrative of opinion and first-hand experience (Valentine, 2013). We then chose to do semi-structured interviews, interviews which follow a general path but are not as rigid as structured interviews, as it ensured that we would cover the topic needed without halting the natural flow of conversation (Longhurst, 2003). The questions which we chose covered demographics and the themes surrounding identity cards which we wanted to analyse. We ensured that as many questions as we could were open-ended so that the interviewees’ answers were not limited. We also made certain that none of our questions were leading to make sure the information collected was genuine. Whilst interviews do provide in-depth detail, they only provide information about a small proportion of our research population, the student body. In order to get more information about the general student consensus, we decided to utilise online surveys as they collect a wider dataset than interviews, if less detailed (McLafferty, 2016). We shared our surveys online using social media as it was the most efficient method to get our surveys out fastest and our research population, students, are highly likely to use social media. Online surveys are cheap, widespread and do not take up the time of the researchers like a face-to-face survey would do (McLafferty, 2016). However, they do not ensure that the respondent is part of our research population and exclude those who do not have access to the internet, potentially discriminating against those from a lower-income background (McLafferty, 2016). Another method which we adopted was ethnography, the researcher observing, and sometimes participating in the place of research in order to gain immersive experience (Wacquant, 2002). I decided to conduct auto-ethnography, situating myself as my object of research and my surroundings as my place of research as I am a student who regularly experiences the use of an identity card. Auto-ethnography provides a narrative of the research object as well as internal justifications for actions and opinions however it can be difficult to treat oneself as an object of research and as Hamilton, Smith and Worthington point out, there is potential for the researcher to subconsciously project their research onto their surroundings which changes the course of the narrative away from the object (2008). Lastly, a method which was used was research into both visual and textual representation of identity cards and their use in the higher education system as well as representation in historical documents and archives. Representation is both shaped by and shapes meaning and opinion, therefore, it was crucial to investigate the representation of identity cards and the higher education system to realise popular opinion of them (Hall, 1997). The historical data was used to analyse how this opinion has changed over time as well as how the process of normalisation has unravelled. Analysing this mass of data involved scrutinising the language in the interviews, surveys and representations to produce wordles as well as using the data to pick out themes and sub-themes of which to explore. Any quantitative data produced, such as from the survey, was analysed using charts and graphs to visually display the data from which patterns and trends could be spotted.

Whilst there were many themes and subthemes which could be discussed, there are three main themes which stood out to me in my research and I will examine these in analysis; the indifferent attitude with which students treat identity cards, the active role which students play in their own surveillance and the exclusion which identity cards bring with it. An unexpected but common theme which runs throughout the data is student apathy towards the security and privacy issues associated with identity cards on campus. This was especially clear in the survey in which the students expressed that they had no particularly strong feelings towards this subject. In fact, when asked “Using one word, how does using an ID card make you feel?”, 5 participants used the word “nothing”, whilst 2 used the word “fine” and 2 used the word “indifferent”. This theme continued throughout the survey, with a common answer being “Neither agree/disagree” when asked whether they agree with something. This attitude can also be found in the interview transcripts with interviewees with one interviewee stating “Oh, I don’t think I have any opinion on ID cards being used to register into lectures, I’ve never really thought about it before”. However, after discussing it with the interviewer they ended their statement by exclaiming that “I suppose I do have an opinion on it now”. During my analysis, I have come to believe that this nonchalant position is a symptom of the normalisation of security both in higher education and in society in general. This is supported by my research into representation as I came across an article by the school newspaper on the school library that contains an image of the barriers at the entrance which require an identity card to pass. This, in comparison to the article I found as a part of my archival research in which Identity cards were rejected in the Republic of Ireland due to “concern about privacy implications” (Reilly, 1996), shows the extent to which security has become normalised. There is not even a mention of the barriers which require a card in the article whilst the idea of an identity card was outright rejected in 20th Century Republic of Ireland, it is simply presented as a normal part of life at Queen Mary University. In terms of the student experience, this data shows that monitoring and security concerning student identity cards have become so normalised that students have become indifferent and it has become accepted as a part of student life.

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Another theme which I will analysis is that the data suggests that students have become active players in this security surrounding identity cards. The most surprising data which came up in this theme was auto-ethnography, during the auto-ethnographic period in which I analysed my use of the identity card I realised 10 minutes into my 20-minute walk to the university that I forgot to bring it with me to a lecture. The choice I was faced with was whether to return home and retrieve my identity card making myself late or to arrive on time without it unable to register. Interestingly, I chose to go back and get it, knowing I would make myself late. I prioritised the university knowing I was at a lecture over actually being present in the lecture for the whole period in which my lecture was. This form of self-regulation revealed in my auto-ethnography presents the depth to which normalisation affects behaviour. It has become so ingrained in me to carry my identity card with me that, unprompted by the power which regulates this rule, in this context the university, I changed my behaviour with potentially negative consequences to my education in order to yield to the security rules on campus. This theme was consolidated by the article as it is an article produced by students for students to read and it reproduces the message by the university that security on campus is normal. Students who write for this platform are using it to reinforce the normalisation of campus security limiting access to buildings. The student experience of and relationship with identity cards is, therefore, one which is symbiotic as the student manipulates their behaviour around the identity card as much as the identity card does.

Exclusion is also a common theme which can be found throughout the data, as Lyons states “Identity and identification establish and signify relationships of similarity and difference” (2009: 66), in the context of our research identity cards create a barrier between those who are at the university and those who are not. This visual barrier can be seen in the article, with the library physically divided with a barrier which separates those who can enter and those who cannot (Image 1). However, when discussing the topic of identity cards being used for registration the exclusion arises not between those who can and cannot afford to go to university but between those who can go to lectures and those who cannot due to other commitments, such as employment or family requirements. The interview with the lecturer expands on these ideas with them saying that students “have quite little control over the hours of work they are given”, “Might not be in a financial position to say no to this [work]” and sometimes may have to “prioritise working over going to that lecture”. Using identity cards to register tracks attendance and flags up those who miss lectures without considering that they might be less able than other students to attend lectures. Our research has advanced this area of research by examining an area which has previously only been done in Austria as well as the suggestion that it is students themselves which help to reproduce the impacts of identity cards on campus privacy and security.

To conclude, identity cards play a major role in student experience, privacy and security. They are a part of a normalisation process in which security on Queen Mary University of London’s campus is no longer questioned to the point where students self-regulate and reproduce these ideas. Students’ privacy is being threatened as cards are used to register them in order to digitally track attendance, regardless of the fact that some students are less able to attend, creating a culture in which the cards are exclusionary. This is consolidated by the fact that they provide access to certain buildings. However, this process has become so normalised that students are no longer aware of it and in our research showed indifference to the cards which monitor them throughout their higher education experience. Within wider discourse, this research provides a narrative case study in an area which had previously only been examined in Austria and raises questions within higher education as to the extent to which students can be and should be surveilled.


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The Impact of Identity Cards on Student Life in Higher Education. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 29, 2024, from
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