22 SES 16 C, Stratification and Participation in Higher Education
The objective of this study was to explore female, working-class students’ journeys into higher education. It was hoped that by understanding their journeys into higher education policies can be developed to increase the participation of this group further. The study addressed the following main research question: ‘What do working class women perceive as the ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ of going to university?’ The sub-research questions were: ‘What are the social, cultural and economic factors that influence working class women’s decisions to go to university?’ and ‘To what extent do working class women perceive their experiences of university life as positive?’ This study is significant because entrants are still significantly more likely to be from more socio-economically advantaged backgrounds.
The total number of entrants to higher education in the UK in 2017 was 533,890 and 82% of those were domiciled in the UK (437,789) (UCAS, 2017). The End of Cycle Report from UCAS for 2017 showed that the number of young people from backgrounds with the lowest entry to higher education was 13.8%, up 0.2% from the previous year. However, when compared to the figures for entrants from backgrounds who were most likely to go to university, the gap had actually increased by 0.8%. 53.1% of entrants were from backgrounds most likely to go into higher education, which was a 1% increase on 2016. In the UK those from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to attend the prestigious ‘Russell Group’ institutions. Research on working-class participants at prestigious universities has often found that participants perceive themselves to be ‘outsiders’ (e.g. Crozier and Reay, 2011). Archer and Hutching’s (2000) argue that young people frame their opportunity to participate in higher education in terms of social and economic risks. This indicates the uncertainty and level of compromise that some entrants may make if they decide to attend university. However, typically discourses around entrance to university focus on academic eligibility only. Souto-Otero and Whitworth (2017) also cite that a pattern of delayed entry to university (typically between the ages of 24 and 35) in fifteen European countries is associated with social and demographic factors. Bodin and Orange (2018) explain that it is public universities in France offering non-selective programmes that are enabling the ‘new bacheliers’ (first generation students) from under represented backgrounds the opportunity to pursue higher education. Therefore, although inclusion has generally increased in higher education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, there are differential patterns in the type of institution they attend, they have greater social and economic concerns than their more advantaged counterparts and they are also likely to be older when they enter higher education. Consequently research into understanding the higher education journeys of entrants from backgrounds less likely to attend university are significant.
The conceptual framework for this study was informed by both Bourdieu’s and Archer’s understanding of ‘agency’. Bourdieu’s view that “Agents shape their aspirations according to concrete indices of the accessible and the inaccessible, of what is and ‘is not for us’ (1990: 40) shapes the analysis of participants’ experiences”. Archer’s morphogenetic approach to agency, is also drawn upon, in particular the concepts of, ‘discernment’, ‘deliberation’ and ‘dedication’ were used to make sense of the relationship between the individual, structure and culture to address the qualitative experiences of women from backgrounds least likely to attend university.
Ten semi-structured interviews were conducted using a narrative history approach with female, working class undergraduates. The narrative history approach draws upon biography and history (Denzin, 1989). The narrative history approach often taken by feminists to explore the wider background of participants’ experiences was appropriate as it enabled the researcher to explore the wider social, cultural and historical factors influencing the journey into higher education within a widening participation context. Like Lillis (2001: 6) the researcher started from the premise that in order to understand the students’ experiences of university, it is important to have a sense of who the students are and their past experiences of education. Feminist approaches to research have an emphasis on understanding the social and cultural contexts of events as well as the events themselves, whilst maintaining a commitment to sensitively broadcasting the ‘voice’ of those being researched (Ramazanoglu, 2002). Feminist interviewing principles were adopted by the interviewer. Therefore there was a focus on ‘rapport’ building and an attempt to address any perceived power differentials between the interviewer and interviewee through the honest sharing of the interviewers’ personal experience of attending university and her own family background. The interviews lasted for up to one hour, they were conducted in a comfortable room within the University, participants were offered refreshments and all participants agreed to their interview being audio recorded. The research was conducted with the Universities ethical approval. The interviews were transcribed verbatim. Participants had the opportunity to ‘member-check’ their interview transcript. As Miles & Huberman (1994: 9) recommend the focus was to identify ‘patterns and processes, commonalities and differences’.
Archer’s morphogenetic approach to agency using the concepts of ‘discernment’, ‘deliberation’ and ‘dedication’ was used. ‘Dedication’ was strongly highlighted. For example, tenacity characterised the women’s stories of gaining entry to university with seven of the ten experiencing personal or academic challenges. The decision to become an undergraduate was balanced by a pragmatic emphasis on familial relationships and the locality. Caring responsibilities and ‘part-time’ employment intersected heavily with studying. In terms of ‘discernment’, the concept of ‘outsiders looking in’, was not highlighted as an issue by participants. This may be because the institution took a significant proportion of students from widening participation backgrounds. Therefore the sense of discombobulation that arguably is experienced by working class students who attend elite institutions was not evident. In terms of ‘deliberation’, the social and economic impact of delayed gratification that these students were experiencing was balanced with their hopes for longer term improved career prospects. Future career plans were not fully formed, but there was a strong belief in the possibility of occupational fulfilment as a graduate. There was a sense of social responsibility to their families, but also to helping the wider community. This could be seen in their potential future career choices, such as teachers and social workers, again highlighting a sense of ‘dedication’. There was an absence of ‘fun’ and ‘choice’ in these accounts unlike many middle class descriptions of university life, indicating a balance of ‘dedication’ and ‘deliberation’ in their acceptance of their ‘type’ of university experience. As policy makers look to address the continuing gap in social mobility in England, it seems that an understanding of a working class student journey featuring compromise and uncertainty might offer a useful starting point.
Archer, M. S. (1995) Realist social theory: the morphogenetic approach, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press Archer, L. and Hutchings, M. (2000) 'Bettering Yourself'? Discourses of risk, cost and benefit in ethnically diverse, young working-class non-participants' constructions of higher education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21 (4), pp. 555-574 Bodin, R. and Orange, S. (2018) Access and retention in French higher education: student drop-out as a form of regulation, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 39 (1), pp. 126-143 Bourdieu, P. 1990a. The Logic of Practice. Cambridge: Polity Press Crozier, G. and Reay, D. (2011) Capital accumulation: working-class students learning how to learn in HE, Teaching in Higher Education, 16 (2) pp. 145-155 Denzin, N. (1989) The research act. 3rd ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Lillis, T. M. (2001) Student writing: access, regulation and desire, London: Routledge. Miles, M & Huberman, M. (1994) An Expanded Sourcebook Qualitative Data Analysis. 2nd ed., London: SAGE Publications Ramazanoglu, C. (2002) Feminist methodology: Challenges and Choices, London, SAGE Souto-Otero, M. and Whitworth, A. (2017) Adult participation in higher education and the ‘knowledge economy’: a cross-national analysis of patterns of delayed participation in higher education across 15 European countries, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38 (6), pp. 763-781 UCAS (2017) End of Cycle Report, UCAS
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