Bucking The Trend

Date Published 10th July 2017

New research, 'Bucking the Trend', explores why young men from working class backgrounds choose higher education when so many of their peers don't.

An untapped source of insights

A significant access challenge concerns the progression to higher education of young males from widening participation backgrounds, especially, although not exclusively, white British men (sometimes referred to as white working class males). Yet, whilst under-represented some from this cohort do make it to university. In doing so, these individuals represent a potentially valuable although often untapped source of insights into the forces inhibiting as well as enabling HE participation. Supported and funded by the Higher Horizons Collaborative Outreach Network, this study investigated these forces. To accomplish this, evidence was gathered using a form of in-depth, semi-structured interview from a sample of 14 males who derived from educationally disadvantaged areas in Stoke on Trent, Mid-Staffordshire and Crewe.

The ‘Bucking the Trend’ report contains all the findings from this project and can be downloaded here, but we have highlighted a few key issues below.

The decision to stay local

What initially struck from a cursory examination of the data generated was the apparent role of serendipity in the progression of these individuals (the convergence of seemingly random forces and influences). This may help to explain why so few young men from lower socio-economic backgrounds take the HE route. However, from a more detailed consideration of the evidence certain patterns emerged.

All interviewees opted for a ‘local’ university. Whilst this reflected the sampling approach taken – with those selected having grown up in one of three local areas and then progressed to one of three local universities – what also emerged from the interviews was that the decision to ‘stay local’ was a carefully consider one. In part, it reflected the availability of suitable courses offered by nearby providers. However, it also reflected the individual’s ties to their locality, including the view that it would prove too much of a wrench on their families if they were to venture further afield. The cost-saving side of staying ‘local’ also featured in a number of accounts.

Non-linear routes

The straight linear route into HE – involving gaining the requisite number of GCSEs and then moving onto college and level three study, before entering university by the age of 18 – was not prominent amongst the trajectories described by interviewees. Whilst their ‘slower’ journeys to university could be viewed as a case of these young men needing a little more time to mature, some offered a fairly critical assessment, with reference made to time ‘wasted’.

Instead, the reasons for their non-linear progression included unfavourable perceptions of HE and the decision to, initially at least, embark upon a different pathway, including into employment. For some the transition to (advanced) level 3 study also proved a challenging one, leading to a withdrawal from their initial programmes of study, or the decision to start again – often at a different institution. However, it was also evident that behind these general tendencies lay stories of encountering and negotiating a range of personal challenges.

A determination to progress

Despite such difficulties the young men featured in this study did progress to university, and here it was possible to discern a number of influencing factors. What became apparent from the conversations with all 14 was a determination to progress. What also emerged strongly were tendencies to draw upon their own initiative in investigating the HE option. Moreover, all interviewees talked of a particular subject interest that, in most instances, could be traced back to an early age, with some demonstrating resilience in maintaining this interest to learn in the face of peer pressure to do otherwise. In many cases, these early interests were to align with the subjects interviewees came to study in HE. Indeed, university was seen as providing an opportunity to pursue these interests.

A belief in the value of HE

Interviewees also shared a strong belief in the value of HE as a way of improving their situations. The financial returns and career gains from higher-level study were prominent in a number of accounts. These were sometimes discussed in the context of the low wage areas they had come from, and the ‘leave school and go into work or get a trade’ trajectories they considered to characterise these areas.

Parental support

Most talked of parents who were supportive of their higher education ambitions, even though they were from families with no history in HE. Instead, they spoke about learning from their parents’ experiences, watching them struggle, and admiring and wanting to adopt their work ethic. Some talked about parents wanting them to do better and to take advantage of the opportunities they were denied. The support parents offered had less to do with guidance on next steps, since there was a lack of first-hand experience, and more to do with general encouragement and expressing a pride in their son’s achievements.

Other positive influences

Interviewees also talked about the positive role of other family members, relatives and friends, whilst in most cases references were made to the central role played by particular teachers and tutors – both in raising and supporting their general educational aims and ambitions, as well as those related to HE in particular. Other sources of support, encouragement and advice included the graduates some encountered, often in the workplace, whilst for a number of these young men outreach interventions, including university visits, were described as having a positive impact, most notably in raising HE awareness and interest, and helping to overcome concerns about ‘fitting in’.

Whilst different accounts placed emphasis of different influences, in none did the decision to progress appear to be the outcome of a signal occurrence. Rather, it was the consequence of a series of factors, often starting at a relatively young age but continuing, or being reinforced, by subsequent experiences.

The continued challenge

This said, the HE challenge did not always stop once their university applications had been accepted. For some, the transition to HE study proved difficult as a new environment and new ways of doing things were encountered. Yet, their stories show a continued determination to overcome these challenges.

The report includes a number of recommendations and suggestions for how these findings might inform the outreach and widening access work carried out by universities and the National Collaborative Outreach Programme.

Download the full ‘Bucking the Trend’ report here.

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