07 SES 06 B, Narratives
Widening participation initiatives have sought to encourage the enrolment of non-traditional students in Higher Education (HE). The main reason for widening-participation policies is to ensure an adequately educated population for a country’s prosperity in the global knowledge economy (Archer, 2007). Countries including the UK and Australia have therefore been willing to devote substantial budgets to practices likely to achieve their goals of an increase in education levels of their populations, with the expectation that the investment will reap rewards in subsequent years. While individuals undertaking tertiary education also expect (and often achieve) financial benefits from their study (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008), it is also not without risk and cost, and this can be especially true for students from non-traditional backgrounds (Reay, 2001, 2002, 2003). While widening participation policy in Australia has had a strong focus on students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds (Gale & Tranter, 2011), categorising students this way is problematic, and it may be more functional to consider students who are First-in Family (FiF) to attend university (Southgate et al., 2014). Students in the FiF category often belong to more than one equity group (Scull & Cuthill, 2010). Research shows that these students can struggle with adapting to and negotiating through the alien environment of HE, and with financial and academic concerns. They often need to juggle studies with paid work and familial responsibilities (James et al., 2008), and may not seek support when they do encounter difficulties (Benson et al. (2012), for a variety of reasons. Many researchers have found Bourdieu’s thinking tools of habitus, capital and field a useful framework for considering the experiences of non-traditional students (for example Reay, 2002). This paper reports on one such study, which considers the costs and payoffs of HE as experienced by a number of non-traditional students.
A longitudinal study was undertaken, using narrative inquiry to examine the experiences of 13 non-traditional students in a regional Australian university. An initial survey was distributed to first year undergraduate students enrolled in a compulsory course of a teaching degree. Students who completed the survey, indicated a willingness to participate in further interviews, and whose responses indicated one or more non-traditional markers (related to parental employment and levels of education, for example) were enlisted for the study. Up to five narrative interviews (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000) were undertaken with each student over four years as they moved into, through, and sometimes out of their studies. Each semi-structured interview began with a life-story question about the student’s experiences leading to HE (for the first interview) or (for subsequent interviews) their experiences of and affecting their HE journeys in the period since the previous interview. Optional supplementary questions were available to target aspects of the student experiences which were indicated by the literature as important and which had not been addressed by the participant’s response to the life-story question. A single, sequential narrative was then constructed from each student’s combined interview data to represent the student’s journey. Bourdieu’s thinking tools of habitus, capital and field (Bourdieu, 1990) were employed to analyse the factors affecting the students’ experiences.
Results from the study show that non-traditional students had expectations that HE would provide them with financial and recognitive rewards. It would lead to employment with financial comfort and security, plus an element of status –increased respect from family, friends and communities. Students were willing to make substantial sacrifices and investments (financial and emotional) in order to achieve these expected rewards. In most cases the students worked hard and studied hard. Many endured financial and emotional hardships, and at times their health suffered. After four years, the apparent rewards for the students’ efforts varied. Most had completed their degrees, or soon would, their employment prospects were good, and they were happy with the financial benefits. As with any HE cohort, not all completed their studies. This was sometimes a choice, but often a choice influenced by their non-traditional status. Family illness, altered financial and employment situations, and relationship breakdowns all affected the student journeys. For some students unable to reach their HE goals, the price of enrolling may not be worth the cost invested. A minority of students in this study were left with student debt and without a degree leading to employment that could fund that debt. An additional cost for some students who did not complete their chosen degrees was a loss of self-esteem: some demonstrated shame at their unreconciled goals. The costs borne by individuals for whom widening participation does not work is a cost not considered by governments or policies, but are costs nevertheless.
Archer, L. (2007). Diversity, equality and Higher Education: acritical reflection on the ab/uses of equity discourse within widening participation. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5-6), 635-653). Benson, R., Heagney, M., Hewitt, L., Crosling, G. & Devos, A. (2012). Social inclusion and the student experience: what are the implications for academic support? Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(2), pp 11-28. Bourdieu, P. (1990). In other words: essays towards a reflexive sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press. Clandinin, J. & Connelly, M. (2000). Narrative Inquiry: Experience and Story in Qualitative Research. San Francisco CA: Jossey-Bass. Gale, T. & Tranter, D. (2011). Social justice in Australian higher education policy: an historical and conceptual account of student participation. Critical Studies in Education, 52(1), 29-46. James, R., Bexley, E., Anderson, A., Devlin, M., Garnett, R., Marginson, S. et al. (2008). Participation and equity: A review of the participation in higher education of people from low socioeconomic backgrounds and Indigenous people. Deakin, ACT: Universities Australia. Reay, D. (2001). Finding or losing yourself?: working-class relationships to education. Journal of Educational Policy, 16(4), 222-346. Reay, D. (2002). Class, authenticity and the transition to higher education for mature students. Sociological Review, 50(3), 398-418. Reay, D. (2003). A Risky Business? Mature Working-class Women Students and Access to Higher Education. Gender and Education, 15(3), 301-317. Scull, S. & Cuthill, M. (2010). Engaged outreach: using community engagement to facilitate access to higher education for people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Higher Education Research & Development, 29(1), 59-74. Southgate, E., Douglas, H., Rubin, M., Scevak, J., Macqueen, S. & Lindell, C. (2014). The academic outcomes of first-in-family in an Australian university: An exploratory study. International Studies in Widening Participation, 1(2), 31-45.
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