Higher Education as a pathway to ‘the good life’: hope, risk and regret in the post-92 university

Sumner, Bethany (2023) Higher Education as a pathway to ‘the good life’: hope, risk and regret in the post-92 university. Doctoral thesis, Birmingham City University.

Bethany Sumner PhD Thesis published_Final version_Submitted Oct 2022_Final Award Aug 2023.pdf - Accepted Version

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As a result of widening participation, the number of students who are the first in their family to attend higher education (HE) has significantly increased, yet their experiences are often characterised as being problematic, both in relation to university study and graduate outcomes. Importantly, many first-generation students study within post-92 universities which are also often positioned in deficit within the hierarchical HE field. This aim of this thesis was to explore the lived experiences of non-privileged first-generation students studying within a case study post-92 university. Specifically, this study examines how non-privileged first-generation students framed their decision to attend the university, what they perceived to be significant in relation to their experience and their expectations regarding graduate employment. Additionally, the influence of the social and political context of HE on the participants’ lived experiences was explored, particularly in relation to the impact of university status.

Contextualised by policy discourses of massification and marketisation this thesis extends current work surrounding first-generation university students. Existing literature commonly offers a focus on a specific stage of the student lifecycle (frequently the first year). Less attention is paid to first-generation students throughout their student experience, including pre-entry and post-graduation. There is also a paucity of knowledge surrounding first-generation student experiences specifically within low-status, post-92 universities, leading to limited exploration of inequalities in HE within this context. This inquiry addresses this gap in the literature by focusing exclusively on the transitional experiences of first-generation students in a post-92 university throughout the student lifecycle. Additionally, the majority of the participants lived locally, therefore, the local student experience is also pertinent to this inquiry.

In line with the interpretivist paradigm this study utilised a hybrid approach incorporating both a case study research design and a biographical, narrative-based approach. Twenty students at various points in their student journey completed in-depth biographical interviews, including applicants, current students, and recent graduates. The conceptual framework for this inquiry is built on elements of Bourdieu’s theory of practice coupled with Berlant’s (2011) depiction of “cruel optimism” and “the good life”. Whilst Bourdieu’s thinking tools are frequently used in educational research, Berlant’s (2011) theoretical framework is largely absent from sociological understandings of higher education. This thesis makes a significant contribution, capitalising on this theoretical gap by drawing on Berlant’s work to illustrate new understandings of first-generation students’ experiences.

Findings demonstrate that whilst university access and participation has widened, the dominant discourse of what it means to be a student has not. Class-based notions of the ‘traditional’ HE experience have resulted in a model which continually devalues the experience of both first-generation students and post-92 universities, which is challenged by this thesis. The research findings offer a critique of the discourses surrounding studenthood and conceptualise a nuanced understanding of first-generation student experiences through the development of a student typology. fostering wider understandings of non-privileged student transitions. This thesis also offers a unique contribution to knowledge by exposing the “cruel optimism” inherent within HE, revealing the way in which structural inequality and stratification can have damaging emotional impacts on students from post-92 universities. This study calls for a shift from the normative ideology of what it means to be a student and for a re-imagining of the post-92 university that recognises, rather than disregards, its value. Furthermore, findings raise important ethical questions regarding HE institutions and policy discourses which continually position university as a route to graduate employment and financial stability, without acknowledging the wider non-economic benefits of HE. Conclusions therefore offer insights for policy, universities, and schools and colleges with regard to developing a fairer and more just system of HE for first-generation students.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
19 October 2022Submitted
22 August 2023Accepted
Uncontrolled Keywords: Higher Education, Widening Participation, Cruel Optimism, First-generation students, Post-92 university, Bourdieu
Subjects: CAH22 - education and teaching > CAH22-01 - education and teaching > CAH22-01-01 - education
Divisions: Doctoral Research College > Doctoral Theses Collection
Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences > School of Education and Social Work
Depositing User: Jaycie Carter
Date Deposited: 20 Oct 2023 11:07
Last Modified: 20 Oct 2023 11:07
URI: https://www.open-access.bcu.ac.uk/id/eprint/14851

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