22 SES 03 C, Non-traditional Students and Diversity
Despite numerous policy initiatives addressing the issue, white working class young men remain one of the social groups least likely to attend university in the UK and much of the rest of Europe, and are widely considered excluded from full social participation. They figure prominently in Britain amongst those considered ‘left behinds’ during the post-Brexit fallout, and remain voices rarely heard in HE. This project primarily aims to establish the utility of innovative research approaches employed to access a group consider ‘hard to reach’ for both policy interventions concerning widening participation to university, and when researching HE experiences. It also seeks to understand the motivations of those who do ‘make it’ to university, and, by involving their peers who did not go, consider possible local, national and international policy interventions to address this.
Historically in the UK there have been numerous research studies into working class male educational underachievement at school, with examples across time including Jackson and Marsden (1962), Willis (1977), Mac an Ghaill (1994), Evans (2006) and Reay (2017). However, despite this ongoing concern, their ‘underachievement’ in higher education remains relatively under-researched, despite its central importance to social inclusion, especially social mobility (Milburn, 2016; Waller et al., 2014).
Lyng (2009:463) suggested that within the UK literature on working class male educational achievement, ‘school commitment and masculinities are fundamentally incompatible’, even where researchers propose ‘multiple possible masculinities’ (e.g. Connolly (1997), Swain (2000), Waller (2006)). The theoretical framework employed here utilises Bourdieu’s conceptual tools of habitus and capitals (e.g. see Waller, 2018), and extends Connell’s ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (e.g. 1995) in arriving at what a research colleague and I called ‘composite masculinity’ (Waller and Ingram, 2016).
This phenomenon has led in Britain to scrutiny and comment from both media and policymakers too. But the causes of this are complex. It is often – incorrectly to my mind – attributed to ‘aspirational deficit’ (Harrison and Waller, 2018), and notions of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ are cited too during times of changing employment, including the disappearance of traditional male working class jobs, and the hollowing-out of communities upon which they were based (Fraser, 2013).
The project reported here involved recruiting a sample of eight young (under 25) white male working class third year undergraduates from a range of programmes across my institution. These were recruited through advertisements posted around the university and some prompting by colleagues asking students in their lectures. Third years were recruited for this study to ‘surface’ and test key themes and ideas by reflecting on their and their peers’ educational experiences. The eight undergraduates were asked to recruit a friend with the same demographic characteristics who did not go to university (i.e. two friends who are both white working class young males, one an undergraduate and one who is not). This is necessary to employ the innovative Listening Rooms approach outlined below. Recruitment of ‘local’ students (i.e. from the city or surrounding region) was prioritised for logistical ease and cost of travel etc.
- How useful are the innovative research methods in accessing the voices of the participants; is there something about the cohort in question that makes them more appropriate than more traditional research approaches?
- How might the research approaches be further adapted to better access the voices and narrative accounts of young white working class men?
- Why did the undergraduate participants choose to go to university when the majority of those in their situation do not?
- How do both the HE attending and non-attending participants feel their lives will differ from their peers as a consequence of either going or not going to university?
The main research approaches employed here were specially designed to capture the ‘voice’ of students from whom we rarely hear, and to learn lessons that would inform efforts to better engage their ‘left behind’ peers. I am using external stimuli as discussion prompts in focus groups here (as explained below), but more importantly trialling the use of two new methods presented at a recent Society for Research in Higher Education/Office for Fair Access network event on accessing students’ voices in the English HE system. Both of these approaches have been specifically developed for use in this regard, and the originators of each have acted as critical friends during the project from which this paper springs. The first is from Dr Emma Heron, who developed an approach modelled on BBC Radio 4’s The Listening Project programme in which two friends or family members record conversations on a given subject in a radio booth. Heron’s (2018) adaptation of this format involves two student friends talking for an hour, for ten minutes on each of six topics from prompt cards. Time was managed through using a large egg-timer. To allow a freer, less inhibited and more ‘natural’ discussion as researcher I was in the adjoining room to the participants during their conversations, which were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis. The second approach from Liz Austen (2018) involves digital storytelling employing the Adobe Spark tool (e.g. http://yorkshireuniversities.ac.uk/digital-storytelling). This required teaching the participants the technique and asking them to make a short film (c2-3 minutes) using still images (their own or from another source), and a voiceover narrative. These are also excellent resources for prompting discussions (e.g. they were used for this purpose in the subsequent focus groups).
The paper will present findings from this ongoing project, and these will cover both aspects of the work, i.e. the theoretical findings from the study and the methodological approach. First, the findings regarding why some participants had chosen to go to university whilst the majority of their peers did not, and also how all participants – both those in HE and their friends who are not – feel decisions over whether to attend university will impact on their lives and life chances. The theoretical framework of Bourdieu will be employed within this analysis, in particular the notions of capitals and habitus. Secondly, the utility of the chosen methods within the context of the project will be explored. How good were they at accessing the ‘hard to reach’ and (frequently) ‘left behind’, and how might the approaches be further adapted to better do so?
Austen, E. (2018) Variation and innovation in ‘student voice’ research. Presentation to the SRHE/OFFA network seminar How can we meaningfully listen to students’ voices to shape policy and practice? Bristol 25th January Connell, R. W. (1995) Masculinities Cambridge: Polity. Connolly, P. (1997) Boys Will Be Boys? Racism, sexuality and the construction of masculine identities among infant boys, in B. Cosin, and M. Hales (Eds.) Families, Education and Social Differences. London: Routledge. Evans, G. (2006) Education failure and working class white children in Britain, Palgrave Macmillan Fraser, G. (2013) Whatever Happened to Community?: Episode 3 – Through Thick and Thin BBC Radio 4 [Broadcast 2 December 2013] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03jz22w Heron, E. (2018) Listening Rooms. Presentation to the SRHE/OFFA network seminar How can we meaningfully listen to students’ voices to shape policy and practice? Bristol 25th January Jackson, B. and Marsden, D. (1962) Education and the working class Routledge and Kegan Paul Lyng, S.T. (2009) ‘Is There More to ‘Anti-schoolishness than Masculinity?: On Multiple Student Styles, Gender, and Educational Self-Exclusion in Secondary School’. Men and Masculinities 11 pp. 462-487 Mac an Ghaill, M. (1994) The Making Of Men: Masculinities, Sexualities and Schooling Open University Press Milburn, A. (2016) State of the Nation 2016: Social mobility in Great Britain London: Cabinet Office. Reay, D. (2017) Mis-education: Inequality, education and the working classes Policy Press Swain, J. (2000) "'The Money's Good, the Fame's Good, the Girls Are Good': The Role of Playground Football in the Construction of Young Boys' Masculinity in a Junior School." British Journal of Sociology of Education 21(1) 95-109. Waller, R. (2006) ‘I Don’t Feel Like ‘A Student’, I Feel Like ‘Me’!’: The over-simplification of mature learners’ experience(s). Research in Post-compulsory Education 11 (1), pp. 115-130 Waller, R. and Ingram, N. (2016) Degrees of gendered distinction: Working and middle class male under/graduates and their complex negotiations of masculinity Society for Research in Higher Education Annual Conference. Newport, 7th-9th December Willis, P. (1977) Learning to Labour: How working class kids get working class jobs Columbia University Press Waller, R., Holford, J., Milana, M. and Webb, S. (2014) Widening participation, social mobility and the role of universities in a globalized world, International Journal of Lifelong Education 33 (6), pp. 701-704
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