Struggles and strategies: does social class matter in higher education

Struggles and strategies: does social class matter in higher education

Book: Struggles and strategies: does social class matter in higher education
Year: 2018
Authors: Threadgold, S. Burke, P.Jane & Bunn, M.
Editor: University of Newcastle
Publisher: University of Newcastle
This report explores to what extent universities, as providers of high skill credentials, add value to the social and cultural capital, resources, networks and strategies of students through their transitional experiences and processes. It investigates whether a student’s background—such as belonging to one or more equity group as identified by Australian policy—impacts their graduate transitions; how they imagine, perceive and navigate university to work transitional processes; and how social inequalities shape and constrain their access to and transition from university to segmented labour markets. This report moves beyond simple categories, such as socio-economic status, to develop an understanding of the multi-layered and nested equity issues informing students’ experiences and practices. The preference for a clear-cut quantification of issues related to equity and disadvantage risks missing how these are played out in everyday lives. Students who experience disadvantage do not do so through a homogeneous experience, but must endure it in its inter-personal forms, whether through banal day-to-day activities or through structured forms of social closure. Theories of social class and intersectionality, especially feminist readings, allow for greater attention to the nuanced and emotional ways that class and inequalities more broadly are constructed and enforced. We take these as a much needed, and stronger way to understand universities in the era of widening participation. The report identifies that student ‘backgrounds’ are not shed as they enter university or adulthood, but instead influence their views and what they see as plausible and meaningful opportunities and strategies. Furthermore, structures of class (and its intersections with other inequalities such as gender) are embedded in social institutions such as universities. At every stage, from access, undergraduate study, and (sometimes after many delays) graduation, students are enmeshed within structures and trajectories that present certain paths and possibilities as more or less likely to be successful. We have found that many students from working class backgrounds will see a university degree itself as being enough for a pathway into a meaningful graduate position, but often misrecognise the scope and extent of competitive advantage required in a heavily saturated graduate labour market. Students from privileged backgrounds, in contrast, often have greater access to competitive forms of knowledge and networks that provide more opportunities to produce strategies for securing graduate employment. Through understanding these issues we offer recommendations designed to support students from all social groups throughout their undergraduate study and into their transitions to graduate labour markets.
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