33 SES 01 A, Women in Higher Education
This paper reports on the experiences and perspectives of military wives as students and potential students of Access to Higher Education Diplomas, a qualification for widening participation in HE for ‘non-traditional’ students in the UK. While there is now an increasing body of international research on military wives, their experience of education is an under-researched field. What exists focuses mainly on the USA with virtually no research conducted in the UK or Europe. We do not know what proportion of military wives access Further Education (FE) or Higher Education (HE), or what proportion of wives already hold a degree. Nor do we know how many are prevented from accessing education due to challenging circumstances of being a military wife. We don’t know how they access information about education, what they choose to study or what shapes their choices, nor about their specific experiences of being a mature student, nor how they combine study with the specific requirements of a military lifestyle. This small, qualitative study provides an insight into some of these issues.
This study sought to understand how the experiences and perspectives of the military wife student; using a case study of British military wife students and potential students of the 'Access to Higher Education Diploma' (AHED). It was commissioned by the Forces in Mind Trust to shed light on the AHED experiences of (ex)military personnel and their spouses (Macer, 2016) in response to evidence to suggest a decline in AHED students with a military-affiliated background within the South West region of the UK.
The study found that for these women, the practices of the military and education system constrain their access to, and progress in, Higher Education. Theoretically, we draw on the theories of Connell (1990) and Butler (2008, 2011) to extend the work of Althusser (1971) on the functioning of the state apparatuses. Specifically, the military as a Repressive State Apparatus and educational institutions as an Ideological State Apparatus; and their interacting roles in the maintenance of dominant social interests (Macer & Chadderton, 2020).
This study is internationally significant in many ways. Firstly, although it might rightly be argued that more women are going to university than men in many countries, this research shows that both the military and HE system promote similar patriarchal ideologies which reproduce the gender regime and disadvantage this group of women. The study therefore adds more generally to our understanding of the gendered division of labour (Harrison and Laliberte, 1994) and the maintenance of gendered social roles (Cote Hampson et al., 2018). Secondly, it provides a rare analysis of gender issues in the military and HE which employs the framework of Althusser’s (1971) state apparatuses, arguing that this Marxist approach continues to be relevant for understanding contemporary society. Thirdly, it challenges both global neoliberal claims that the state is in retreat, and the impression given that universities in particular, but also the military, function somewhat independently of the state: in this study we suggest the state remains central to the maintenance of the gender regime. Fourthly, the study has implications for the fulfilment of the UK’s Armed Forces Covenant, which pledges that those who serve or have served and their families ‘…should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.’ (Ministry of Defence, 2011), since the research argues that military wives do indeed continue to face specific disadvantage due to the way in which the state apparatuses, the military and the HE system, combine to maintain their gendered position.
We report on a re-analysis of data generated from a wider study (Macer, 2016), to understand the gendered experiences of military wives as students. The original study, framed by the concept of an ‘AHED student journey’, involved semi-structured interviews with a convenience sample of: 15 British military and ex-military wives who were past, current and potential AHED students; 3 AHED Co-ordinators (civilian education professionals) each from an area with a local military base; and 30 military-facing, Career Information, Advice and/or Guidance (C-IAG) professionals (whose clients had a military background) and civilian-facing, C-IAG professionals (civilian clients). The findings presented relate to a re-analysis of the original data through a gendered lens, as it emerged during the original study’s analysis that gender was a major theme for military spouses and deserved further analysis. In this paper, we address the following questions: What motivates military wives to undertake an AHED qualification? How do they access information, advice and guidance about further study and qualifications? How supportive do they perceive the military to be of their studies? Does the completion of the AHED actually lead to military spouses continuing to Higher Education? What role does gender play in these processes? The data (full interview transcripts) was then analysed thematically drawing on the work of Althusser, Connell and Butler, as explained above.
The study found that the state apparatuses, the military and education, interact to shape military wives’ gendered positioning and the related challenges they experience as adult learners. These military wives’ educational decisions are shaped by the role to which they are allocated by the military; their education plays a secondary role to their serving partners’ careers; the military promotes their roles as wife and mother above educational opportunities; the inflexibility of the Higher Education (HE) system further blocks educational opportunities, making it difficult for military wives to continue into HE; the practices of the military and education system constrain their access to, and progress in, Higher Education; and that, despite an agenda to widen participation in HE, the gender regime (Connell, 1990) is reproduced through these institutional structures and practices blocking educational opportunities for this group.
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