Barriers to success? : access entrants and social class processes in higher education
The aim of this thesis is to explore social-class processes within higher education through a study of the experiences of mature, largely working-class, Access entrants. It draws on data from a qualitative, longitudinal study of twenty-seven such entrants to a pre-1992 university, a post-1992 university and a college of further and higher education, all in the South Yorkshire region. The central finding is that, whilst all mature students entering higher education may experience some degree of disjunction, this is frequently more intense for those from working-class backgrounds, although factors of age, entry qualification and gender interact in complex ways to shape the experiences of mature entrants. It is suggested that, despite important differences between higher education institutions in terms of access strategies, ethos, student composition and levels of student support, the academic stance on which they are all premised, with its distanced and nuanced impartiality, may constitute a subtle source of disjunction for working-class students because it necessitates a detachment from, and symbolic re-ordering of, their social worlds. As a consequence, working-class students in higher education are likely to feel that they are entering an alien world. Drawing on Bourdieu's analogy of social life as game playing, it is contended that the working-class habitus provides resources for dealing with the experience of higher education but that participation in the academic `game' has important consequences for selfhood and relationships with significant others, marking a potential betrayal of working-class roots and a loss of the `sense of one's place'. The theoretical framework adopted in the thesis rests upon a reformulation of Bourdieu's concepts and the methodological stance is one of critical realism. It is argued that social class operates at a number of distinct but interwoven levels. At the structural level, class is viewed as a real economic and cultural phenomenon with generative mechanisms of which social actors may not be aware. Working-class students in higher education may therefore only partially recognise the class-based nature of their disadvantage. Indeed, the processes of misrecognition and symbolic violence may encourage such students to believe that they lack the necessary skills and qualities to cope in this sphere. At the level of social action, however, class processes are implicated in the struggles for distinction in social life - material, cultural and symbolic - of purposive and active social agents, although social classes at this level may now operate more as modes of differentiation than as forms of collectivity (Savage, 2000). It is contended in this thesis that the relationships between the structural and cultural dimensions of social class, and between each of these and social agency, are contingent upon historical and social circumstances; these relationships can therefore only be specified in concrete, empirical contexts. (This is clearly demonstrated by the contingent combination of structural context, individual motivation and, in many cases, fortuitous events that lay behind the entry to higher education of the working-class students in this study. ) Following this, it is argued that the generative mechanisms of social class affect what happens in a contingent, rather than a necessary, way so that the outcomes of the struggles for distinction in social life are not fixed. For this reason, class processes may contribute to the reproduction of existing patterns of disadvantage but the potential is also there for change: in the context of this study, for a progressive demystification of higher education and an increasing awareness among working-class groups of its possibilities.