Promoting Student Engagement in Higher Education
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Promoting Student Engagement in Higher Education or Capital Accumulation and Working Class Students Learning How to Learn in HE

HEA Conference, Leeds 3 March 2010

Gill Crozier

Roehampton University, London

The socio-cultural and learning experiences of working class students in Higher Education

ESRC RES-139-25-0208

Gill Crozier, University of Sunderland Diane Reay, University of CambridgeJohn Clayton, University of Sunderland

And I just felt that [Norton pre 1992 university] might have been out of my depth, might have been a bit like, I dont know, like something

like a Harvard or, do you know what I mean, it just wasnt

where I should have been. Whereas here [Northern post 1992] would probably be more my level and I dont, maybe it was more mature

and I just felt that [Norton] might have been out of my depth,

students here when I came to visit or because I was the

only mature student there on the open day and they just

seem to be at all mature students, whereas here they

understood that I think they were a little bit more aware

of family life and a lot of the lecturers on the history

have got young families so theyre more aware that things

happen and that you cant prevent things from coming up. (Barbara, History,Northern)

  • The ideal lecture theatre is vast, truly vast. It is a very sombre, very old amphitheatre, and very uncomfortable. The professor is lodged in his chair which is raised high enough to see him; there is no question that he might get down and pester you. You can hear him quite well, because he doesnt move. Only his mouth moves.Preferably he has white hair, a stiff neck and a Protestant air about him. There are a great many students and each is perfectly anonymous. To reach the amphitheatre, you have to climb some stairs, and then, with the leather lined doors closed behind, the silence is absolute, every sound stifled; the walls rise very high, daubed with rough paintings in half-tones in which the moving silhouettes of various monsters can be detected. Everything adds to being in another world. So one works religiously.

  • (History student, female, aged 25, Paris in Bourdieu,P. Passeron, J-C, de Saint Martin, M. (1994) Academic Discourse. Cambridge: Polity Press)

The four HEIs

The research took place across three geographical areas and in four different types of HE institution:

A post 1992 university Northern

A pre- 1992 university - Midland

An elite university Southern

A college of FE teaching Foundation degrees Eastern College


  • Undergraduates 18 years and above from a range of class backgrounds, including white and minority ethnic women and men.

  • Tutors and Widening Participation Officers

Preparation for University and Learning Transitions

  • when I first arrived I was completely unprepared for what [Southern] University would hold for me and it took me a while to settle in, a while to get to grips with what was wanted from me and a while to start producing and while I was still confident throughout that period I was on shaky ground compared to a lot of the other students who knew what it was all about. Now I feel like I'm a lot more cemented but its taken a while. There's other people who have come here and are completely prepared, know what's expected of them and are used to the sort of life.

    (Jamie Law student Southern University)

  • My thoughts have always been, at my lowest point, its

    always Im not capable of doing it you know and you realise

    you are capable when you get your marks. But the environment from a

    work environment to an academic one, has just been a right culture

    shock. .. its difficult when you havent, .. well I left school at 16, 15,

    nearly16, so there was a 25 year gap of study and it was, you know the

    simple things like reading a book, we all read books but reading a book

    to glean knowledge from is difficult.. It was difficult to begin with

    Anyway and like I say, I had no previous academic background, so

    Ive had to learn as Ive went along. Even sort of writing

    an essay, Ive had to learn how to write an essay while

    Ive been doing my degree (Arthur, History, Northern Univeristy)

  • Nothing really prepares you for going from a [school] teaching environment where you are spoon fed to coming to a lecture and you are responsible for taking notes; you dont have to show up if you dont want to; youre responsible for handing in the work. It took me a little while to adjust to that.

    (Sarah, Law, Northern University)

  • In the first year I just felt totally lost you know, it was like in a lecture, in a module and thats it and the rest of your time youve got to get the books which they tell you in the lecture to read and whats in your module guide and it was just strange and difficult and hard to, it was hard to get into a set way of learning as well you know.

    (Arthur, History, Northern University)

  • during the new year I was at home a lot, because youre ten minutes

    down the road and its so easy just to go . Ive got more understanding of what

    Im doing, because theres nothing else to do here. You can go on the computer but you

    get bored of that in about five or ten minutes, so then you go back to your work. Youre

    not distracted by TV, youre not distracted by Big Brother, youre not distracted by

    nothing, its just there, you have to do it dont you. And theres other times where we

    havent had lectures for four hours, Ive gone home, whereas this time I dont think I

    would, I reckon I would just stay here and do some work, because you know living on

    your own at home, well I live with S, so I do housework or I take the dog for a walk, or, I

    do anything but sit there and study. Whereas they always said at the beginning treat it

    like a full time job, come here nine till five and then go home and do what you want, and

    during the nine till five, youll find that you do enough work to get you through. Thats

    probably what I should have done. (Lisa, Law, Northern University)

  • O. There is a lot of competition. One thing I noticed is you quickly find out what people are like from supervisions, pretty quickly in fact. You know, for example, I got a pair of girls in my supervision with me, and one girl....Well, when I make a point, she goes 'Oh, I see what you're seeing, yeah. But, like, if it was looked at from this view, and you take it from here, then I think it's this, this actually not X, it's Y.' So she always picks me up on stuff.

  • I: So they always challenge you on what you say?

  • O: Yeah, yeah, and thats brilliant. And then theres another girl whos like, No, think about it, come on, think about ityou need blah blah and its just a bit too, trying to get one over on you.

  • I: Combative?

  • O: Yeah, definitely and a bit superior. And you quickly find out what people are like. (Owen, English, Southern University)

Support for Learning and the Learning Environment

  • The seminars I found a bit tricky to begin with and the idea that the lecturers werent there to say anything, it was all supposed to be us bouncing off each other for ideas so I think they were not quite there with seminars yet and I dont think weve mastered the art of it, to be honest. I think the seminar leaders are rather cross with us at the minute.

    (Barbara, History, Northern University)

  • It was a massive culture shock, that it would be so much work, like I did 6 A levels and never did my work and then I come here and I actually have to learn how to work, they work you so hard, and everyone gets ill, tired, and youve got other stuff to do as well as that, and its just knackering. .. (Amy, Engineering

  • Southern)

  • These are all my reports from staff that Ive had this year and theyre not just from my supervisors. Ive been getting lots of feedback, positive feedback saying how much Ive improved and how to make my work even better. Its been excellent. (Jamie, Law Student, Southern University)

  • References:

  • David,M.(ed) Bathmaker,A. Crozier,G. et al (contributors) (2009) Widening Participation Through Improving Learning. London and New York: Routledge

  • Crozier, G. Reay, D. Clayton,J. Colliander,L. (2008) Different Strokes for Different Folks: Diverse Students in Diverse Institutions - Experiences of Higher Education. Research Papers in Education, 23:2, 167-177

  • Reay, D, Crozier, G and J Clayton (2009) Strangers in Paradise: Working class students in elite universities Sociology December Vol. 43, No. 6.1103-1121

  • Clayton,J. Crozier, G. Reay,D. (2009) Home and away: risk, familiarity and the multiple geographies of the Higher Education experience. International Studies in Sociology of Education Vol. 19, Nos. 34, SeptemberDecember 2009, 157174

  • Reay,D. Crozier, G. Clayton,J. (2010)Fitting in or standing out: working class

  • students in UK higher education. British Educational Research Journal.36:1, pp 107-124

  • Crozier,G. and Reay, D. Capital Accumulation: Working Class Students Learning How to Learn in Higher Education. (forthcoming)

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