Memorandum from the University of North
London (HE 91)
This report summarises findings from the Social
Class and Widening Participation in HE Project, based at the University
of North London. Findings are identified for the following issues,
and implications outlined:
Encouraging working class groups
to choose to go to university
Working class "cultures of resistance"
HE culture as "alien" and
Vocational and educational advice
The Hierarchy of UK universities
Do alternative entry routes widen
Negative images of studying
Differential participation by gender
Differential risks of participation
Financial barriers to participation
Retention of working class students
Implications for Schools/FE sector, HE sector
and government are summarised at the end of the report.
The British Higher Education system has undergone
a period of considerable growth and expansion in recent decades
and yet participation among certain "non-traditional"
social groups remains persistently low (NCIHE, 1997). This phenomenon
is not restricted to Britain, and is echoed throughout virtually
all industrialised countries (Goldthorpe, 1996; Hatcher, 1998;
Schuetze & Wolter, 2000). This summary paper reports a two-year
research project, funded by the University of North London, to
investigate the barriers to HE participation among British working
Government-funded policies and intervention
strategies have succeeded in raising the numbers of working class
young people entering higher education (see, for example, Bigger,
1996; Robertson & Hillman, 1997). There has, however, also
been a dramatic increase in the numbers of middle class entrants,
who have often colonised the entry routes designed to encourage
working class participants (Davies, 1995; Wakeford, 1993). Thus
inequalities between social classes remain constant and extremely
resistant to change (Blackburn & Jarman, 1993; Hatcher, 1998).
"Working class" people do not constitute
a unitary, homogenised category, and rates of participation in
higher education have been shown to vary between different working
class groups. For example, participation is lowest among those
from unskilled occupational backgrounds (Robertson & Hillman,
1997) and among inner-city working class groups (Robertson, 1997).
There are also complex patterns of participation in terms of race
and gender: overall slightly fewer working class women than men
participate and ethnic minority groups appear to participate in
greater proportions than white groups. However, the very lowest
participation rates occur among African Caribbean men and Bangladeshi
men and women (Coffield & Vignoles, 1997; CVCP, 1998; Modood,
1993). Furthermore, it is agreed that when graduate earnings between
gender/race groups are taken into consideration, the picture becomes
yet more complex. This research addresses these complexities as
a central concern: working class participation is understood as
located within a complex web of multiple, intermeshed social power
relations, comprising a combination of institutional, personal,
social and economic factorsi.
The research project was conducted in three
main phases and utilised a mixture of methods. Focus groups were
conducted with inner city, ethnically diverse working class respondents,
including both "non-participants" (people who were not
in higher education and who were unlikely to apply) and "participants"
(current HE students from working class backgrounds). The "generalisability"
of focus group findings was explored through a national survey.
Phase One: Focus groups with "non-participants"
Sixteen focus group discussions were carried
out with a total of 118 working classii people aged 16-30 living
in north and east London. Approximately one third of the sample
identified themselves as "black" (Black African, Black
Caribbean, Black-Mixed race), one third "Asian" (Pakistani,
Bangladeshi and Asian-Mixed) and one third "white" (white-British,
white-Italian and white-Turkish)iii. Ten groups took place in
further education (FE) colleges, where respondents were attending
courses from which they were considered to be unlikely to progress
to HE (eg NVQ Level 1). Six further groups were recruited from
the general public according to gender and ethnicity (African
Caribbean, Bengali, white). These "single sex/separate ethnicity"
groups mostly included people who were not participating in any
form of education, (many of whom had left school at 16 and were
now working or unemployed) although some respondents were studying
part-time in FE. Of the non-participant sample, 16 said that they
definitely hoped to go to university (though only nine of these
were currently taking level three courses). About the same number
explicitly rejected the idea. Many of the remainder expressed
some interest, but said they were unlikely to enter HE.
Phase Two: A National Survey
Focus group findings informed the design of
a national survey questionnaire. Questions were administered through
the MORI Omnibus survey to adults from social classes C1, C2,
D and E, aged 16-30 years living in England or Wales. Questions
were asked over three survey sweeps and a total of 1,278 respondents
were successfully targeted. Of these respondents, 56 per cent
were female and 44 per cent male. 91 per cent of respondents were
white and 9 per cent from ethnic minorities. Overall, 17 per cent
of the sample had been/were at university, 17 per cent expressed
possible plans to apply and 59 per cent did not plan to go to
university at all.
3.4 Phase Three: Focus groups with "participants"
Seventeen focus group discussions and interviews
were conducted with a total of 85 new first year undergraduates
at a post-1992 university. Respondents were recruited from a range
of courses from across the faculties. Of these respondents, 51
were women and 34 were men. Approximately 30 per cent of respondents
could be identified as "white British", 20 per cent
as Asian, 20 per cent as black and 27 per cent were from other
(mainly white European) backgrounds.
1. Issue: Encouraging working class groups
to choose to go to university
Finding: For many focus group respondents,
the possibility of going to university was a "non-choice",
it had never entered into their choice/decision-making horizon.
The MORI survey also revealed that 59 per cent of the sample did
not plan to ever go to university, and almost half of all respondents
(49 per cent) had never thought about doing a degree (this figure
rose to 60 per cent among social class E interviewees). Qualitative
analysis revealed that few working class respondents were able
to draw on a family history of HE participation to support and
guide them through the process of application and entry. As a
result, most respondents knew relatively little about how to apply
to university, what it might be like there or what studying in
higher education might cost and entail (See Hutchings & Archer,
2001). It could be argued that working class families are highly
disadvantaged within the HE process as compared to middle class
applicants, who are able to draw upon greater cultural capital
and resources (eg Reay, 1998). Indeed, the working class student
interviewees said that knowing someone who had been to university
was a very important factor in their decision to apply. This personal
contact not only introduced university into respondents' horizons
of choice but provided a trusted/valued information source (see
below), support and advice on how to apply and reprsented the
"achievability" of university participation for "people
Implication: As Diane Reay argues, these
findings point to the need for radical structural changes: "The
solution to class inequalities does not lie in making the working
classes more middle class, but in dismantling and sharing out
the economic, social and cultural capital which goes with middle
class status" (Reay, 1997; p 23).
2. Issue: Working class "cultures of
resistance" to participation
Finding: Evidence suggests that even
among suitably qualified working class groups there are low levels
of participation. In line with this, respondents voiced various
reasons opposing the possibility of personally going to university.
For example, a number of non-participants felt that it would take
too long to pursue university entry routes and it would be a costly
and remote possibility. Both non-participants and participants
(but particularly women) identified family and social/community
opposition to the idea of their going to university because it
would entail getting "above your station" (Hutchings,
Archer & Leathwood, 2000) and/or because for those with children
it was considered "irresponsible". However, ethnic minority
respondents, particularly black women, were more likely than white
respondents to frame their motivation to go to university in terms
of making their families proud. The greater encouragement to study
among ethnic minority working class families was framed within
a struggle against racism rather than solely as an aspiration
towards "middle class" values. A number of respondents
criticised a middle class motivation of going to university for
fun or "a laugh" and contrasted it with the huge costs
of participation that render such a motivation as impossible and
unthinkable for working class students.
Implication: Improved links between local
communities and HEIs may help reduce negative perceptions of HE
participation. Issues around the length of study, and the financial
burden participation places upon working class families, could
also be usefully addressed. This evidence suggests that the strategies
needed to encourage different ethnic and gender groups will vary;
the working classes cannot be treated as homogenous.
3. Issue: HE Culture as "alien"
and "middle class"
Findings: Higher Education was talked
about as a middle class system in which working class students
were disadvantaged and "different" and 45 per cent of
the MORI sample agreed that "the student image is not for
me". Some focus group respondents anticipated, or recounted,
being intimidated by middle class students. Mature students were
particularly likely to voice fears of being "out of place".
Some mature female students also felt they did not understand
the culture and language of the middle class staff. A number of
non-participant women talked about universities as "big and
scary" and "snobby". Independent of whether respondents
personally expressed a wish to go to university or not, "students"
were widely represented as middle class (and white) and therefore
"different" to oneself. Images of (middle class) students
were largely negative, with students positioned as "lacking
common sense", "immature" and as socially inadequate.
This latter view was particularly prevalent amongst white respondents.
Many respondents shared a view of university student life as characterised
by "drinking and partying", but this stereotype was
generally regarded as negative for a number of reasons. For example,
participants and non-participants emphasised the risks of alcoholism
and debt associated with a culture of "cheap drink".
Mature and Muslim students felt that the "partying"
image promoted by university student unions marginalised and did
not represent their own experiences and values.
Implications: HEIs need to attend to and change their
cultures (and how they market themselves) if they are to widen
participation to diverse working class students. Careful attention
will need to be paid to how this change is managed, so that working
class students feel a "right" to belong (a sense of
ownership) and are not just expected to fit, or be "special
cases" within a middle class system.
4. Issue: Vocational and educational advice
Finding: Respondents largely lacked (and
distrusted) information and encouragement from schools or colleges.
Within the MORI survey, 44 per cent reported receiving no information
from their schools or colleges regarding higher education. Ball
& Vincent (1998) found a wide mistrust of particular "official"
sources of information among working class families and a heavy
reliance upon "hot" or 'grapevine' knowledge. Similarly
in this research, qualitative analysis revealed that official
sources were regarded as biased in that they represented institutional
or governmental interests. These sources of information were contrasted
with "informal", local sources, which were regarded
as more useful and reliable. FE respondents were also highly critical
of the careers advice they received from independent, "professional"
careers advisors, who (it was perceived) did not know them or
hold their interests at heart. In comparison, working class HE
students narrated the importance of having had trusted friends
or family members who encouraged them through entry routes and
provided an important motivation to apply for university.
Implication: Schools and colleges need
to work closely to develop partnerships and community links. Mentoring
schemes, where pupils are matched with students from similar backgrounds
to themselves, may be particularly important in providing pupils
with trusted "hot knowledge" about higher education.
Careers advice may be better used coming from known, familiar
teachers, rather than independent careers services. Careers advice
from known, familiar teachers may be better valued and used than
that from independent careers services.
5. Issue: The hierarchy of UK universities
Finding: The majority of respondents,
both participants and non-participants, talked about how only
certain (less prestigious) universities are accessible for working
class students. Access to the "dream" universities (which
were "nice looking", had "grass", were further
away and guaranteed better graduate jobs) was considered the domain
of middle class students who had the necessary money, status and
whose families were able to "plan ahead". In comparison,
working class respondents recognised that a mixture of social
("keeping close", family responsibilities) and financial
factors (cost of transport, need to carry on in paid employment)
necessitate attending a "local" university. Some ethnic
minority respondents also mentioned that these "better"
universities tended to be dominated by white students, although
some black women were motivated to try and access such institutions
"to prove a point".
Implication: Giving more money to elite
universities to attract working class students may not provide
a solution. Many working class students need to attend a local
university, and these universities (which tend to be ex-polytechnics)
will require higher levels of funding to support non-traditional
learners and to ensure the experience is worthwhile for working
class applicants. Issues of social justice demand that the whole
HE system is opened to working classes, and this will require
radical fundings and institutional changes. Otherwise, there is
little incentive for working class people to undertake the huge
risks and costs of participation for what is perceived as a "second
rate" higher education, which will be of lesser value in
the job market.
6. Issue: Do alternative Access/entry routes
Finding: The majority of non-participants
were unclear about what entry qualifications are required for
university, but it was widely assumed that whatever these were,
they would be higher than the ones they personally held. The MORI
survey also revealed that only 32 per cent of respondents thought
that had grades or qualifications which would allow them to go
to university, and this figure fell to 17 per cent among social
class E. Where focus group respondents had knowledge of alternative
entry routes, the legitimacy of these was often questioned. Both
HE participants and non-participants thought that the qualifications
they held (such as GNVQ, BTEC, Access courses) were regarded less
highly than A Levels. It was also argued that within universities,
working class students with "non-traditional" qualifications
are "labelled" and/or unprepared. The non-participant
respondents were largely employed in occupations from which it
is difficult to accumulate the forms of accreditation that are
currently recognised as routes for entry to HE. Mechanisms that
do recognise more diverse forms of potential and life experiences,
such as APEL, remain marginalised within the HE system and thus
offer limited potential for widening participation. Many respondents
appeared to be skeptical of the educational system as a whole.
For example, they regarded routes designed to widen access as
Implication: The new Curriculum 2000
may well help to reduce confusion and give equal status to different
forms of vocational and academic qualification. However, while
elite universities continue to accept a narrow range of academic
entry qualifications, it is inevitable that vocational, and other,
access routes will be perceived as less valuable.
7. Issue: Negative images of studying
Finding: Non-participants were almost
unanimous in their views that study is hard and boring, although
there was divided opinion as to whether it is worth enduring to
gain the benefits of a degree. Only one or two respondents identified
satisfaction, or interest, in studying as a reason to go to university.
These views contrasted with findings from the MORI survey, in
which just under half of all interviewees (48 per cent) agreed
that "I enjoy studying" and 49 per cent thought that
universities offered courses that they would find interesting.
Implication: The large number of respondents
who reported not finding study enjoyable suggests that perhaps
schools (and post-compulsory institutions) need to place greater
emphasis upon allowing pupils the opportunity to develop personal
interests and learning identities (as opposed to the current drive
towards curriculm delivery).
8. Issue: Differential Participation by Gender
Findings: Within the MORI survey, men
appeared to hold slightly more negative views of university participation
than women: For example, slightly fewer reported enjoying studying
and higher percentages of men said they would "rather earn
money" and thought university and the student image was "not
for them". In comparison, women appeared to be slightly more
constrained by situational barriers; higher percentages of women
said they would only study locally and part-time, and would do
a degree "if it did not cost so much". Compared to the
men, a slightly higher percentage of women doubted their own ability
to pass a degree. Male focus group respondents (from all ethnic
groups) were particularly likely to view "being a student"
as incompatible with their own lives and identities. The majority
of non-participant men defined themselves through paid employment,
and educational choices were addressed solely through discourses
of work and money. The content of these discourses varied between
men from different ethnic groups, but shared a common theme that
the men faced particular responsibilities that rendered HE participation
impossible/unattractive. Men were particularly likely to cite
economic/ instrumental motivations for going to university. In
comparison, women more often framed the benefits of participation
in terms of increased personal self-worth or social status. Women
were also more likely to talk about class mobility and change
as a positive outcome of participation.
Implication: Findings suggest that slightly
different strategies may need to be adopted to encourage participation
for men and women. Strategies aimed at men may need to consider
the image of the "feminisation" of studying and the
importance of links between higher education and the workplace.
Findings from working class women, however, highlight the structural
barriers to participation and the importance of providing adequate
financial support as well as academic support to raise learners'
9. Issue: Differential Risks of participation
Findings: As Beck (1992) has stated,
risks are not distributed evenly across social class and consequently
HE participation will entail considerably greater risks for working
class students. Across all phases of the study, working class
respondents recognised that participation will entail considerable
social and economic risks, costs, financial hardship and insecurity,
and all with no guarantees of success. Respondents could recognise
benefits but were in "impossible" positions and constrained
by material situations and needs as well as identity/attitudinal.
This combination of risk, cost and uncertainty permeated through
the HE process, from application, to participation and graduate
employment prospects. It is widely agreed that debt is riskier
for working class groups (refs) and respondents highlighted the
diverse, but very real, possibilities of failure (drawing upon
their own experiences of educational failure) and the diverse
social and economic consequences of failure for themselves and
their families. In the face of these risks, many respondents'
reasons for not wanting to participate could be identified as
using pragmatic rational strategies of risk management, "sticking
to what you know". For example, non-participant men stressed
the importance of maintaining the 'security' of working and earning
as opposed to gambling with a long period of study. Whilst a number
of respondents acknowledged the benefits of the middle classes'
use of educational "plans", this was contrasted with
the working classes' riskier positions, which hindered the possibility
of such plans.
Implication: There are no simple solutions
to the issue of how to reduce the unequal risks and costs of participation
faced by working class students. It is suggested that a combination
of (often quite radical) social, structural and financial changes
(as suggested throughout this report) will need to be undertaken.
10. Issue: Financial Barriers to Participation
Findings: The impact of financial barriers
for working class participation were emphasised consistently and
uniformly across the research. Even the most academically qualified
respondents, and those already at university, felt hindered by
poverty and actual, or potential, debt. Both HE participants and
non-participants appeared confused about grants/loans and fees,
and even current applicants reported that they did not know about
recent changes in the funding system. Not a single non-participant
respondent had any knowledge of means testing within the assessment
of payment of tuition fees or loan applications. There was also
confusion among students with regard to the necessity for LEA
assessment to set the levels of fees paid. Student loans were
widely assumed to be same as bank loans and were associated with
a fear of debt. They were thought to be "unfair" and
part of a governmental "money-making scheme", a form
of "double tax" for graduates who would later contribute
through higher earnings tax. The process of applying for financial
support was found to be highly complex and repetitive; different
authorities (LEA, Student Loans Company, the University) all requiring
the same information.
Implications: There is an urgent need
for better information about the current funding systems and arrangements.
At present the system is opaque and widely misunderstood. It would
also be helpful if the processes could be simplified. The introduction
of student tuition fees and student loans (instead of grants)
appears to be a widespread disincentive for working class students,
who are unfairly disadvantaged within such a system. While changes
(such as Access bursaries) have been introduced to improve the
situation, our evidence suggests that potential working class
applicants are not adequately informed about financial arrangements.
11. Issue: Racism
Findings: A number of ethnic minority
participants and non-participants raised issues around racism.
Some black male and female respondents recounted their experiences
of racist teachers and their fears that white university staff
may also "mark them down". Black women in particular
talked about their family's efforts to counter teachers' low aspirations
for their daughters, for example confronting teachers to allow
their daughters to be entered for higher level examinations and
to apply to university. Similar findings are reported in the work
of Mirza (1992). A few ethnic minority respondents suggested that
racism hinders their prospects within the job market.
Implications: Issues around racism and
differential encouragement of ethnic minority students require
action. The problem of racism in the job market also impacts upon
HE participation and perceptions of "employability".
The dominance of white staff within academic institutions also
12. Issue: Graduate employment
Findings: Throughout the research study,
respondents identified the current shift to mass higher education
as a barrier to participation. These disadvantages were framed
in terms of the resultant "over-crowded" graduate job
market in which working class graduates (having attended "second
rate" universities and having achieved lower qualifications
as a result of juggling work, financial and social pressures)
would be the first to be "squeezed out". The consequences
of being "overqualified" and unable to get a graduate
job were identified as depression, increased family poverty and
lost time, money and employment prospects.
Implications: The issue of graduate employment/employability
again points to the problems of the current hierarchy between
HEIs. Universities may also wish to develop closer links with
workplaces and may benefit from increased funds for strategies
to prepare working class students for their post-graduate job-seeking
13. Issue: Retention of working class students
Findings: Issues around retention cross-cut
with many other themes, such as finance, "risk" and
access routes. Many students identified that they were at risk
of "dropping out" due to financial difficulties. Single
mothers and those students previously on benefits were particularly
at risk. The necessity for working class students to continue
in paid employment throughout their period of study was widely
identified as a disadvantaging factor.
Implications: Retention is as much of
an issue as access. For working class students, the importance
of improving financial support cannot be stressed too highly.
It is also crucial that the government recognise that those universities
that accept high numbers of working class students will inevitably
have high drop-out rates. A higher level of funding is needed
to enable such universities to keep students on course.
Schools and FE Sector
Forge closer links with local partner
institutions (HE and community groups)
Address the provision of careers
Address inequalities in encouragement
of pupils (race, class and gender)
For the Higher Education Sector
Address institutional cultures (including
class, race and gender inequalities)
Employ more ethnic minority staff
(across all levels)
Provide additional support for working
Address employability issues through
closer links with workplaces and through additional support
Forge closer links with local partner
institutions (schools, colleges, community groups)
For the Government
Address the current hierarchy of
institutions in the UK
Funding should follow working class
students. Those institutions that attract high proportions of
working class students need additional funding to support them
Re-consider student funding arrangements:
simplify the current system and provide better information about
Ball, S J and Vincent, C. (1998) "I heard
it on the grapevine": "hot" knowledge and school
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modernity (London, Sage).
Bigger, S (1996). "Post-16 Compact in Birmingham:
school and college links with higher education". In: Abramson,
M, Bird, J and Stennatt, A (Eds) Further and Higher Education
Partnerships: The Future for Collaboration. Buckingham: SRHE
and Open University Press.
Blackburn, R M and Jarman, J (1993). "Changing
inequalities in access to British universities", Oxford
Review of Education, 19, 2, 197-215.
Coffield, F and Vignoles, A (1997) Widening
participation in higher education by ethnic minorities, women
and alternative students (Report 5, NCIHE).
CVCP (1998) From Elitism to Inclusion: good
practice in widening access to higher education Main Report (London,
Davies, P (1995). "Response or resistance?
Access students and government policies on admissions", Journal
of Access Studies, 10, 1, 72-80.
Goldthorpe, J (1996). "Class analysis and
the reorientation of class theory the case of persisting differentials
in educational attainment", British Journal of Sociology,
47, 3, 481-505
Hatcher, R (1998) Class Differentiation in Education:
rational choices? British Journal of Sociology of Education,
19,1 pp. 5-22.
Mirza, H.S. (1992) Young, Female and Black
Modood, T (1993) The number of ethnic minority
students in British Higher Education: some grounds for optimism,
Oxford Review of Education, 19,2, pp 167-182.
NCIHE (1997) Higher Education in the Learning
Society (London, Stationery Office).
Reay, D (1998) "`Always knowing' and `never
being sure': familial and institutional habituses and higher education
choice'", Journal of Education Policy, 13, 4, 519-529.
Reay, D. (1997) The double bind of the "working
class" feminist academic: the success of failure or the failure
of success? In P Mahony and C. Zmroczek (eds) Class Matters.
London, Taylor & Francis.
Robertson, D (1997). "Growth without equity?
Reflections on the consequences for social cohesion of faltering
progress on access to higher education", Journal of Access
Studies, 12, 1, 9-31.
Robertson, D and Hillman, J (1997) Widening
participation in higher education for students from lower socio-economic
groups and students with disabilities (Report 5, NCIHE).
Scheuze, H G and Wolter, A (2000) Higher education
and non-traditional students in industrialized countries- developments
and perspectives. Paper presented at ESREA Access Network Conference,
September 2000, Barcelona.
Wakeford, N (1993) Beyond Educating Rita: mature
students and Access courses, Oxford Review of Education,
19,2, pp 217-229.
Publications from the Project
Archer, L and Hutchings, M (2000) "Bettering
Yourself"? Discourses of Risk, Cost and Benefit in Ethnically
Diverse, Young Working Class Non-Participants' Constructions of
HE. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 21(4).
Archer, L, Pratt, S and Phillips, D (2001) Working
class men's constructions of masculinity and negotiations of (non)participation
in higher education. Accepted for publication in Gender and
Hutchings, M and Archer, L (2001) "Higher
than Einstein": constructions of going to university among
working class non-participants. Research Papers in Education
Hutchings, M, Archer, L and Leathwood, C (2000) "Above
my station"? Gender, race and class in women's discourses
of higher education. Paper presented at ESREA Access Network
Conference, University of Barcelona, 25-26 September 2000.
"University: is it worth it?" Views
from working class Londoners. Invited lecture, University of East
London Millennium Series in Lifelong Learning, 13 June 2000.
(i) See Archer & Hutchings, 2000; Archer,
Hutchings & Leathwood, forthcoming; Archer, Pratt & Phillips,
forthcoming; Hutchings & Archer, 2001.
(ii) It is not possible to assign individuals
to specific social class groups. Respondents filled in a form
indicating their own and their parents' employment. However, more
detail would be needed to allocate to a class. Some parents were
unemployed, and their class category is therefore ambiguous. However
the range of parental and personal occupations fall within the
lower socio-economic groups.
(iii) Respondents used a range of labels to
classify their ethnicity, and in this paper we use these self-descriptions
to identify speakers (this accounts for the lack of strict continuity
of description, whereby speakers from similar backgrounds may
label themselves differently, eg as "black British"
or "black Caribbean").
University of North London