Working-class students have the right stuff to succeed

Rebecca Attwood reports on a study that puts paid to idea that non-traditional entrants are 'high risk'

May 15, 2008

New research has challenged the notion that working-class students are "potential dropouts" and "risky investments" for universities.

A study following working-class students over two years at a range of English universities and colleges found that they were hard working, resilient and committed.

But the study, The Socio-Cultural and Learning Experiences of Working Class Students in Higher Education, found that the wide variations in funding between institutions have a significant impact on students' experiences and the researchers want policymakers to address unequal funding streams.

Gill Crozier from the University of Sunderland and Diane Reay from the University of Cambridge led the project, which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. In all, 160 interviews were conducted with students and tutors at four institutions: a northern post-1992 university, a pre-1992 institution in the Midlands, an elite southern university and a further education college.

Professor Crozier told Times Higher Education: "I do think there is a very strong perception that so-called non-traditional entrants or widening participation students are 'high risk'. There seems to be a moral panic in higher education around retention, when in fact the UK does well on this in comparison to other countries.

"We found a lot of evidence to demonstrate working-class students' strength, resilience, commitment and sense of agency."

None of the students studied dropped out of university, and many excelled. One student at a northern post-92 university achieved a first and went on to do a research council-funded masters at a high-status university. Others overcame difficult personal circumstances.

Students at the elite southern university tracked had a highly focused, intensive experience of studying, and were forbidden to take jobs during term time.

"At the northern university, there aren't the resources to do that," Professor Crozier said.

Most students at the northern university lived at home and had term-time jobs, while a system of online learning meant that university attendance was not always necessary. They tended to socialise with their friends and family at home, and their lives did not revolve around university.

In common with the southern university, the further education college studied frequently provided students with high levels of support throughout their course.

The study identified strong patterns relating to students' confidence as learners, with those at the southern institution the most confident.

"Students at the southern university did go to schools that tended to score more highly on the A* to C measurement, whereas a lot of students at the northern university had had fairly negative school experiences, and quite a lot had left at 16 and had returned to study later on," Professor Crozier commented.

She said the development of online learning in the northern university was an attempt to meet the needs of students who had jobs and family commitments.

"It is an altruistic move, but in our view it also has an unintended consequence - it unintentionally keeps students out. We argue that students need to be 'bound in' to the culture of a university."

As working-class students in an "elite" environment, students at the southern university were more likely to feel challenged socially.

But despite wide variations in experience, all students said they felt enriched by higher education.

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