Who will and who won't cross frontier of shame

Higher Education and Social Class
May 28, 2004

There exists no single concrete definition of social-class identity or experience; class identities and inequalities are constantly shifting. This study engages with prevailing patterns of inequality, assessed in the light of a broad selection of criteria, and looks at the ways in which working-class participation in higher education is constrained.

The most interesting and novel elements in this carefully structured analysis are the direct quotes from the young people who have been interviewed and the insights into how they rationalise their way towards or away from the proffered experience of post-compulsory education, which is now being dangled before a much wider swath of the youthful population than ever before in our history. Working-class students, the writers conclude, lacking the normal entry qualifications, feel they cannot apply; or else they do not believe that higher education is worth the effort and time, taking up as it does three years of their lives and curtailing potential earnings while entailing a financial commitment that is both great and risky.

Parental information and aspiration, the research concludes, is a more potent influence in the choice of whether to participate in higher education than anything told to students at school or college. But perhaps most powerfully and inexorably, potential students feel that higher education can undermine their social position and thus threaten their class identity. The decision is a major one, the authors show, one that entails important moral calculations concerning loyalties and relationships, duties and responsibilities.

With great ingenuity, the researchers have teased out the ways in which feelings about class, gender, sexual and ethnic identity frame the resistance (or the desire) to go to university. They reveal some of the multitude of ways in which the individuals concerned rationalise their outlook and grapple with the powerful emotional forces at work within the self-negotiations involved. From the book's often-touching explanations of why these young people will either venture forth or shrink from the chance of a university education emerges the irrelevance of the official consumerist discourse of the educational and political establishment, with its assumption of crude, calculating and individualistic motives and its appeal to forms of aspiration that are simply absent in many of these lives.

Some of the young people contend with strong family discouragement; some of the young women, suffering from the "hidden injuries of class", would like the option of escape, except that that option is reflected back to them as a threat to those left behind, as a challenge to accepted styles of life.

To many of the young men whom the authors question, the intrinsic value of education is invisible; non-participating males, told that degrees will get them more money, simply respond that they can get the money right away without gambling away the years demanded.

Among working-class males, both those who are willing to go to university and those who are not, there is an awareness of the costs and risks to their sense of masculinity (perhaps defined in the light of a specific ethnicity). Many make clear that they do not want to lose their class identity, and one young man who intends to go to university avowedly sees it as the means of reaching an idealised vision of middle-class life but nonetheless describes it contemptuously as "the complete hack". There is a frontier of shame, of abandonment, that has to be crossed.

One young woman in the survey sums up the choice with a memorable poignancy: "My boyfriend keeps on telling me... once I come into university I will start acting like a uni student, talking like one, reading the papers that they read... Will you be listening to radio stations and watching different things on TV, that I don't watch nowI?" The answer is one we, too, need to be honest about.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Higher Education and Social Class: Issues of Exclusion and Inclusion

Author - Louise Archer, Merryn Hutchings and Alistair Ross
Publisher - RoutledgeFalmer
Pages - 2
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 0 415 644 6

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