Social Class and Higher Education
issues affecting decisions on participation by lower social class groups

Connor H, Dewson S, with Tyers C, Eccles J, Regan J, Aston J
Research Report RR267, Department for Education and Employment, March 2001

research commissioned by the DfES

This summary was published as the Department for Education and Employment’s Research Brief No.267. A complete list of DfEE Research Briefs is available at DfES.

Key findings

  • A number of issues affect the decision to enter HE study.
  • The main motivating factor, which encourages potential students from lower social class backgrounds to enter HE, is a belief that a higher qualification will bring improved job and career prospects, and also improved earnings and job security.
  • Students from lower social class backgrounds take account of a wider range of issues than their counterparts in higher social class groups when taking the decision to enter HE, and they tend to place more emphasis on the expected beneficial outcomes of HE than do students from higher social class groups.
  • The primary discouraging factors mentioned by the research respondents focus on employment and financial issues. The main reasons why people from lower social class groups interviewed in the research had decided against going into HE study, though qualified to get a place, were twofold: they either wanted to start employment, earn money and be independent at an earlier age (39 per cent) or they were worried about the cost of studying (28 per cent).
  • Concerns about the costs of study were expressed by both potential and current HE students from lower social class groups, but the majority felt that the investment was worthwhile in the long run. However, finance was just one of a range of issues of concern expressed by respondents when discussing their decisions to enter HE. Others include being able to cope with academic pressures and workload, gaining the entry qualifications, the application process itself, and personal issues such as childcare.
  • Many respondents felt that there was a need for more relevant and timely information concerning HE, particularly concerning student finances.

Background

Despite a major expansion in student numbers, which has enabled more people from wider backgrounds to take higher education (HE) qualifications, students from lower social class backgrounds continue to be under represented. Fewer than one in five young people from the lower social class groups (IIIm, IV and V) participate in HE, and although this proportion has been increasing, it remains well below the 45 per cent who participate from the higher social class groups (IIIn, II and I), a figure which has also been increasing rapidly over the years. Lower social class groups represent 28 per cent of the total entrants to full-time undergraduate study, a lower share than their 39 per cent in the UK population as a whole. In particular institutions and subjects, the proportion of HE students from lower social class groups can range from as low as 10 per cent to above 40 per cent.

The main reasons for the differences in participation rates by social class groups have been shown by previous research to relate to educational factors and family backgrounds, and also perceptions about costs involved and benefits of HE study. In late 1999, the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) commissioned a research study at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) to explore in more detail factors influencing decisions about participation in undergraduate study by people from lower social class backgrounds. This focused on groups of people who were taking, or had recently taken, decisions about whether or not to go to university, thus providing an up-to-date perspective on participation issues.

Findings

The research has shown how a great many issues can affect decisions to go on to HE study, and that there is no one overriding factor of influence for students from lower social class backgrounds (IIIm-V). However, they tend to take account of a wider range of issues than their higher social class counterparts (I-IIIn). These are:

Encouraging factors

The main encouraging factor is a belief that a higher qualification will bring improved job and career prospects, and also improved earnings and job security. But only a minority of the research respondents had a particular job or career goal in mind when deciding about HE entry, mostly seeing it as helping them to get a better job ‘a means to an end rather than the end itself’.

Students from lower social class backgrounds tend to put more emphasis on expected beneficial outcomes of HE than do students from higher social class groups. They are also of more importance to certain groups, including those with vocational entry qualifications, some minority ethnic groups and older students.

Other factors encouraging entry to HE are a desire for self-improvement in general, and personal interest in a subject of study.

Discouraging factors

The main discouraging factors focus also on employment and financial issues. The main reasons why people from lower social class groups interviewed in the research had decided against going on to HE study, though qualified to get a place, were twofold. They either wanted to start employment, earn money and be independent at an earlier age, or they had a career or job goal in mind which did not require a degree qualification.

Affording the cost of studying and being in debt were also key reasons for not going to university. There were concerns, too, of current students and likely entrants (though the majority of them felt that the investment was worthwhile in the long run). Concerns about costs were wider and more complex than simply about paying fees. They were linked in to other financial concerns about borrowing and future debt, working to earn income during term-time, and not knowing enough about likely costs and income sources, but also about likely future financial outcomes of HE study.

Working during term time was seen as necessary but not welcomed, because of its likely detrimental effect on their studies. Around half of full-time students from lower social class backgrounds in the survey were currently working in term time, and this was only slightly higher than their higher social class counterparts. On average, students were working 13 to 14 hours per week.

Finance is one of a number of concerns when deciding about going to university. Others include being able to cope with academic pressures and workload; gaining the entry qualifications; the application process itself; and, for some students, personal issues such as arranging childcare. On the whole, students from lower social class groups in the survey appeared to have lower levels of confidence about their ability to succeed in HE and in taking career decisions, than did those from higher social class groups.

Influencers

Prior education and family background can influence decisions about HE entry in numerous ways. Various people have important roles to play in the decision process. In particular for lower social class potential entrants, FE college tutors could be a key group of positive ‘influencers’ on potential students, as were friends and family members with current/recent HE experience.

Information

Although plenty of information about HE seems to be available to potential entrants who are on HE qualifying courses, it is often seen as being too general and overly complex. The main gaps in information content are on the financial aspects of HE study (see below) and its likely benefits in terms of employment and financial returns.

There is a wide variation in the amount and detail of information on HE costs and funding/support that is received by potential students prior to entry. Three-quarters of the full-time students in the survey, and slightly more from lower social class backgrounds, did not feel that they had sufficient information (when deciding about going to university) about how much it was likely to cost to be a student.

Choice of institution and course

Institutions are chosen by lower social class students mainly for reasons related to both cost (mostly to do with living away/staying close to home) and personal interest in specific subjects or courses offered by them. HND and part-time courses were seen as less attractive options than degrees and full-time study.

Part-time students

Part-time students differed in many respects from their full-time counterparts in the survey, being considerably older on average, more likely to have entered with vocational or non-‘A’ level qualifications, and more likely to be taking HND than degree courses. The survey showed that:

  • Future employment and career related reasons were of more importance to part-time than full-time students as factors encouraging HE entry, as were the perceived overall benefits from their investment in education.
  • Part-time students were more concerned about academic and financial issues, had less parental support and had more family commitments (mainly because they were older). They were more likely to rely on personal savings and earnings while studying than full-time students.
  • On the whole, part-time students had even less information pre-entry on the financial aspects of HE than did full-time students.

Policy Implications

The research findings suggest a number of policy implications:

  • The benefits of HE study should be better and more widely communicated. In particular, outcomes associated with improved employability and finance need to be given more prominence, though it is recognised that this is an area of variability across the student body, especially in the first years after graduation. For example, colleges and schools could make better use of past students’ achievements and progress through HE. This is relevant for young students, especially in pre-16 education, and also for mature students.
  • Mentors or ‘HE champions’ should be more widely used to help those potential students who have little contact with people who have recent HE experience. These could be former school/college students, recent graduates, or teaching/ careers staff. Current students from a wide range of backgrounds could be encouraged to visit schools and colleges in low participation neighbourhoods to discuss with potential students their hopes and fears, and explore how they can be addressed. Examples of current good practice of the use of mentors or ‘champions’ should be more widely disseminated.
  • More relevant and timely information on student finance is needed, as well as greater financial assistance made more accessible to those students in greatest need. Affording the costs of HE, while not by itself the single prohibitive factor, is a discouragement. The research clearly shows that more needs to be done to support potential students from low income families. In particular, they could be helped by better guidance on the financial support available and the likely net costs of different options for them, according to their different circumstances. This information should be presented in a more user-friendly way and available earlier in the decision-making process.

Research Methodology

The research was not intended to be a comprehensive survey of barriers and motivations to enter higher education, but was focused on three target groups of respondents:

  • Potential entrants from lower social class backgrounds, currently taking qualifications that would give them entry to an undergraduate course in 2000 or 2001. A sample of 223 students took part in focus groups at 20 colleges and schools.
  • Current students from lower social class backgrounds, plus a sample from higher social classes (for comparative purposes). A sample of just over 1,600 students at 14 institutions in England and Wales, who were entrants to undergraduate courses in 1999/2000, responded to a postal questionnaire survey (41 per cent response rate), and a further 20 of them took part in follow-up interviews.
  • Non-HE entrants from lower social class groups, aged 20/21 years. These were identified as being qualified to enter HE but had decided not to do so, and interviewed by telephone (112 in sample).

The survey analysis used a social class measure based on parental occupation of individuals (or their own if over 25 years old). These were grouped into the standard five classifications. The term ‘lower social class groups’ was used for Groups IIIm, IV and V covering skilled manual, partly skilled and unskilled occupations. ‘Higher social class groups’ referred to Groups I, II and IIIn professional, intermediate and skilled manual.

The study covered England and Wales, and included full-time and part-time study at undergraduate level in HE (degree, HND and DipHE courses). The fieldwork took place between March and June 2000.

Social Class and Higher Education: issues affecting decisions on participation by lower social class groups, Connor H, Dewson S, with Tyers C, Eccles J, Regan J, Aston J. Research Report RR267, Department for Education and Employment, 2001.
ISBN: 978-1-84185-419-9. Bound copy: £4.95

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