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Higher Education among Students with Disadvantaged Background

Higher Education among Students with Disadvantaged Background

28 January, 2016

Despite the recent expansion of higher education, levels of participation and chances of academic success are still lowest among young people from deprived neighborhoods.

Although there has been an increase in the numbers of university entrants from more disadvantaged backgrounds in recent years, such young people have been enjoying less success within higher education.

The uneven number of students from disadvantaged family backgrounds who prematurely discontinue their careers in higher education has become an important issue in recent years.

Success in Higher Education

Continued success in higher education is measured by seeing which of the young people had continued within post-school education two to three years after they had left school. As expected, many had reduced their level of participation, by dropping out or by completing a course and forgoing the opportunity to advance to another course. Others had reduced their level of participation in less obvious ways, including repeating a year of study, restarting from the first year in another new course and deferring entry to higher education in the first place.

It became apparent that those who had been successful in degree courses were a very heterogeneous group. For example, those who had accessed a degree course via an HND qualification found that only some types of university would let them enroll directly into third year. This reflected a three-point hierarchy within universities, roughly equating to the periods of university construction within the UK. The oldest universities, which were seen as the more prestigious, appeared to be the most difficult to access and also tended to offer more advanced courses or subjects. Disadvantaged young people were less likely to enroll (or continue) at such institutions. Thus when measuring the barriers to success within higher education, this research took into account these differences between types of institution.

Educational Barriers

Young people were unfamiliar with the mechanisms of higher education including institutions, courses, subjects, study methods and student finance policies. Additionally, some in this situation felt that they had been poorly advised at school by teachers, guidance staff and the careers service. Much of this poor advice was put down to high-achieving pupils at schools in areas of disadvantage being viewed as ‘success stories’, who, unlike the majority of non-achievers attending their school, did not need help.

In addition, many of the young people spoke of low aspirations operating both within their schools and within their local communities in general, which could push potential students towards more vocational courses or non-academic careers.

Economic Barriers

As might be expected, many of the disadvantaged students felt that the length of their student career would be limited by their finances, rather than by their academic ability.

To overcome their financial problems, various sources of income – particularly paid work and debt – were budgeted against hardship and study time. Interestingly, it was often the fear of debt, rather than actual amount of debt which led to reduced participation.

Cultural Barriers

Students from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds could often find themselves at odds with certain aspects of their non-academic background. In some cases, particularly males, an anti-education ethos seemed to be operating against participation in higher education. Such pressures could also emanate from friends and family, to whom higher education may be an alien concept.

Similarly, disadvantaged students, particularly those who enrolled in more prestigious courses, could feel at odds with their new environment and had trouble fitting in at their chosen institution.