Middle-class students at post-1992 universities are fighting to preserve their class status by throwing themselves into extracurricular activities to build an impressive CV, a new study claims.
While several studies have considered how working-class students felt at elite universities, researchers from the University of Bath and the University of Birmingham have turned their attention to how middle-class students fare at less prestigious, modern universities.
The Paired Peers study has followed 90 students - 45 from the University of the West of England and 45 from the University of Bristol - from the start of their studies almost three years ago to see how students from different social backgrounds react to life at different types of university.
Students from an affluent, middle-class background often felt socially “out of place” at UWE, while others agonised over their inability to gain a place at a more prestigious university, the study found.
One student named “Oscar” quoted in the report says studying at a post- 1992 university is “academically…a big torment to me [at not having achieved my potential]”, while he says he evades questions from others about his alma mater by saying he “went to university in Bristol”.
Presenting the Leverhulme Trust-funded study on 5 April at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in London, Nicola Ingram, a research associate at Bath, said: “Those with high levels of cultural capital felt very out of place.
“Some felt UWE was right for them, but others were ‘fish out of water’. Some were fighting to maintain their middle-class position.”
To do so, many middle-class students interviewed were “hyper-mobilising” - running sports or social clubs, gaining internships - to burnish their CVs to stand out, Dr Ingram explained.
“These students are overcompensating for being at an institution that does not give them the symbolic capital they want to have,” she said.
Dr Ingram said one of her interviewees, “Francesca”, the daughter of an Oxbridge professor - who is studying law at UWE having missed out on the universities of Exeter, Sussex and Kent after getting two Bs and a C at A level - illustrated how middle-class students sought to hyper- mobilise.
“She was very unhappy about going to UWE and, in her first year, thought about going somewhere else,” Dr Ingram said.
“Then something happened. She did lots of internships and seized every opportunity she could. She went to Australia to do an internship and was employing all her social capital - she is really going for it.”
Dr Ingram, who co-authored the paper Not the Place for a Person Like Me: On Being Middle-Class at a Post-1992 University in England, also said that the study showed how middle-class students “knew how to play the game better” when looking for their first job after graduation.
Comparing the job-hunting success of two students in the Paired Peers scheme, she added: “Both had the same aspirations, but the working-class student did not have any social contacts, while the middle-class student used his family and is starting a £40,000 job in a few weeks.”