A minority within a minority

Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in Higher Education

Chelsea McDonagh

Chelsea (left) with Twin Martin, Twin Christie, Martin, Christie, Daniel.

I want to talk about my research which was born out of my undergraduate dissertation. I wanted to do something useful, but I got a bit of scepticism when I mentioned it. The tutor said there was no research in this area. That’s a little bit big for someone doing a PE degree. I said I didn’t care, we’re going to do it anyway.
Joanna couldn’t be here today but she’s worked hard on it and I got funding from Kings WP department to enable me to present it in June and carry out some more interviews.
I grew up on the site in Peckham. This is a picture of me looking serious on the last, year 4 or 5.
I transferred to secondary but around Y 10 things started to go downhill and I didn’t do A levels because they weren’t a Traveller thing to do. I went to Lewisham College which was notorious for being rubbish but they treated sport really good. I then went from there to a small University , St Mary’s, Twickenham, and now I’m at Kings for my Masters.

I wanted know more about other Travellers that went to Uni. I knew what I experienced, the identity struggles that I went through and so it’s about what other people went through.

Chelsea McDonagh

We know the data on education of Travellers Is rubbish, it has been rubbish for the past 10 20 years. To understand the context of Travellers in education you have to understand how Travellers are positioned in society, which in news and government policies is always misrepresented as dangerous and devious others. You don’t embody the behaviours associated with middle-class whiteness, which allow you to be successful and part of the in-group. You exist on the margins and that is having a tremendous impact on how we experience education.

Gypsies, Roma and Travellers experience discrimination and abuse in all aspects of life.
Ethnic identification paints a depressing picture and only tells part of the story

The aim of my study is to understand how English Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers experience Higher Education. I conducted in-depth interviews each for at least an hour. 3 main themes emerged:

  • Initial reactions
  • Experiences in higher education
  • Survival strategies to succeed in HE 

Most felt there was more pressure on us to succeed; if we succeed others might follow in our path, but if we fail we’d confirm the view that we’re not meant to go to Uni.

The way I saw it was if I didn’t succeed at university then none of my nieces and nephews would go to university, even if that’s what they want… [pressure] it’s from all sides. From my family because they’ll say ‘oh you didn’t do this right, you didn’t succeed, we told you it was the wrong path.’And the other thing is its from everyone else who’s like… like they don’t think you’re capable of doing things like that. But some of it is obviously self, put on myself, but it’s people’s expectations right, they just expect you to be able to be a tarmacer or something.


Many interviewees felt split between two worlds and they didn’t belong in either.

It never occurred to me to actually go[to university], it wasn’t even one of those things that was an option, it wasn’t something like ‘oh…’, it was like ‘this is just something the Country People do, it’s not something that Travellers do and I could never do that.


I was surrounded by Higher Education lecturers and there’s me and I’m thinking, they don’t know who I am… there was just no recognition and I thought, do I say something [about being a Traveller]?… I’ve got a Travelling Gypsy community and I’ve got my academic community and I can offend either or, at any given time – Kate 

If you put your head out of water, we get it from both sides– Michael 

I don’t fit into any of the boxes, never fit into a box in my life and all of a sudden like I am a Traveller, but to a lot of Travellers I’m not a Traveller. To a lot of gorgers (Non Travellers), I’m not a gorger. So where, where – Who am I?– Dina

Students experienced racism from their friends, even those who’d be left wing, non-sexist and so-on, but when it came to “pikeys” it’s free range. You can be in liberal circles but when it comes to Travellers it doesn’t count.

They were just insanely racist in front of me. They’d take the piss and be like yeah pikey this, pikey that and these were meant to be my friends. They were [friends], on a day to day basis we’d go out together and things like that but there were very few that weren’t like that. Even the left wing people, you’d be in left wing circles with supposedly liberal people and people be like ‘ah that’s racist, that’s sexist’ and then a thing about pikeys would come up and then it’s like its free range.


One of the first survival strategies was knowing when to play white, changing your accent, choosing who to be open about your identity with. Sometimes it’s not worth the risk, occasionally it is:

I feel bad for not wanting to be vocal about being a Traveller in my degree, but then at the same time, I don’t think at the moment I can afford to because I can’t afford to fail my degree and I shouldn’t have to feel like that…  In my interview with student ambassador roles I use the Traveller thing to my advantage, there’s got to be some good things that come out of it with all the negativity.


Another survival strategy was to find a group of people you’re comfortable with, in this case through sport.

Playing football for the past three years has given me that family away from my actual family and they’re always there. If I was like “I’m depressed, I need to go for a drink”, they’d be like “alright, yes we’re all coming” and it’s that community outside of my home community, that I’ve found comfort in.


Concluding Thoughts

  • Silence acts as systematic exclusion in the Higher Education context
  • Change the narrative on Gypsy and Traveller students by showing successful cases
  • Develop programmes that support students to navigate between their identities
  • Adequate cultural awareness training on teacher training programmes that disrupts and challenges the dominant discourse surrounding Gypsies and Travellers.
  • Appraise and flourish students preference for self directed learning where the student dictates what they want to do and when they are finished.
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