Social Class, Rurality and Access to Higher Education

I’ve recently been reading about research into working class students and their experience of Higher Education. Wolfgang Lehmann has written quite extensively about the topic, and describes the challenges working class students may find when entering higher education, experiencing “a ‘‘foreign’’ environment in which they feel like cultural outsiders” (2013:2). The higher education environment is, Lehmann suggests, classed, and as working class students come into contact with higher education they develop new forms of social and cultural capital in keeping with their environment – such as changing tastes in music, dress sense and so on. This process is one of ‘transformation’ which can be a painful and difficult process for students, and may involve a distancing from their working class roots.

So initially this really interested me because it got me thinking about my own experience of leaving home for university, which I found very difficult. Thinking back to my first weeks at university two conversations stand out for me. One was being in a group of students where the conversation was about ‘which international airport has the best shopping?’ and the other was being in another group where a student (from London) said he had no patience for tourists to “his city” who didn’t know how to use the underground. Now these for me were quite profoundly alienating experiences. At the age of 18 I had only ever lived in rural North Cornwall,  flown on one domestic flight (from Aberdeen to Shetland), and I had only been to London once (for an event that I was invited to, where I was accompanied by my mum and we had got lost on the underground….). In the case of both conversations I felt what Lehmann would probably describe as a ‘dislocation’ – these were not people ‘like me’ and I felt alienated from the social context in which I found myself.

Bude beach
Bude: the town I grew up in (or at least the nearest town to the village I grew up in) – image courtesy of: scottcawley CC BY-NC 2.0


Now, to a certain extent you could say that these experiences were class related – although I would consider myself middle class (my father was a headteacher, my mother was a writer, and we had enough money to live relatively comfortably) I was studying at Oxford University and so many of my fellow students were significantly more privileged than me. However, I think the other aspect in these experiences relates to place  – we hadn’t flown very much as children partly because of the cost, but also partly because the closest international airport would have been almost a day’s drive away and similarly I was so unfamiliar with London because it was  a significant distance from North Cornwall. Indeed in my first few weeks at university while others were complaining about Oxford being ‘small’ I was confronted with a much larger place than I had ever lived, and was already feeling a physical ‘dislocation’ from the things I knew. In Oxford, for example, I  was confronted by lots of unfamiliar things about city living: using town bus services (how do people know when to get off the bus? our country bus just went from one village to another), using taxi ranks and ‘flagging down’ taxis (I still don’t really understand this, I have always booked taxis in the country), and using mainline train services (I grew up about an hour by car from the nearest train station, and that station was Bodmin – not exactly the hub of everything!). I was also getting used to having city shops on the doorstep (and not having to make a special ‘day trip’ to a city), having galleries and museums a short walk away (which I loved), and being able to go out to city pubs and clubs (I was convinced going out was much more dangerous than at home).

oxford flickr
Oxford: where I went to university –  Image courtesy of das_sabrinchen CC BY-ND 2.0

Of course there were lots of parts of my experience which were exciting and enjoyable, but they were also profoundly challenging. Looking back now I can see that moving to a city was partly challenging because of physically being in a different place and having to manage new and unfamiliar experiences (thinking about it, mostly transport related!) but also about a different social and cultural context (managing city pubs and clubs, and going to museums). It was also about being in a place full of ‘city people’ who knew how to ‘be’ and what to ‘do’ in this unfamiliar place.

So, although I have written before about rurality being a widening access issue, reading about the experience of working class students has started to crystalise my thinking. Perhaps it is possible to think about the experience of rurality in a similar way to class – is rurality a similar challenge to entering higher education? And where for working class students, university can be a ‘transformation’ into a middle class milieu, is university a way for rural students to ‘transform’ and adapt to a more urban environment? Perhaps higher education as a predominantly urban, middle class experience 1 is about producing urban middle class graduates? These are big questions, but in the meantime as it is a topic that I don’t think has received enough attention, I would be interested to hear other people’s stories of going to university from a rural place…. What was your experience? What are the things that stand out for you about your first few weeks at university?


1. I say ‘predominantly’ because of course increasingly there are higher education options in rural areas, through for example the University of the Highlands and Islands (in Scotland) and the Combined Universities in Cornwall (in Cornwall). The non-traditional experience of students studying in rural areas is also an area that I think deserves more attention but is outside the scope of this blog!


Lehmann, W. (2013) ‘Habitus Transformation and Hidden Injuries: Successful Working-class University Students’ Sociology of Education 87(1) 1–15



  1. A very interesting idea. I certainly experienced dislocation in my first few months of moving from a small Highland town to the University of Edinburgh. As the son of a joiner and a secretary, and the first person in my huge family (still not entirely sure how many aunties, uncles and cousins I have) to go into Higher Education, there was quite a shock at meeting people with very different world views and attitudes to my own. It was the confidence and arrogance of many public school educated people which struck me as most different to what I had encountered before and I recall a tutorial in the first couple of weeks in which one spoke contemptuously about the Highlands and Islands as undeserving of economic support and investment: ‘they even have single track roads with grass growing in the middle, you know’ was one comment. I possessed neither the confidence nor the articulacy to tackle this prejudice. That for me was far more dislocating than rurality. Yes, the size of the city, the new challenges of navigation, the urban environment were challenges but…I loved them. The contrast. The noise. The opportunities.

    Most Highlanders know of people who dropped out from HE having moved to the bright lights of the cities but when I was in a position to look into this, we found that actually it was no more of an issue for people from the Highlands and Islands than anywhere else. For me, it was a class issue, not one of moving from the rural to the urban.

    1. Really interesting, thank you Iain. It’s amazing how comments like the single track road one can stay with us… I’m also wondering how far class and rurality might intersect? I’m struck by how your example and mine contain an element of upper/middle class contempt for the rural – with grass on the road, or who don’t understand urban life…. Perhaps the classed experience of young people at university (or at least in our experience) involves an element of one-up-man-ship in terms of how ‘worldly’ people are? Also interesting about your research finding similar rates of drop-out – I would like to hear more about this at some point!

  2. Very interesting. I think the class & place discussion is particularly interesting. I think there is probably a sense in which university produces urban graduates but that is hard to untangle from university normally occurring in rural settings. I feel it may be interesting to approach it in terms of if university draws resources away from rural areas by itself being urban in nature and to ask if university as a concept has a social foundation what it offers to rural areas.

    1. Thanks Tom – the mobility question is an interesting one…. certainly there is a sense in which university is seen as a ‘brain drain’ away from rural areas, although my research is showing this is much more complex as a process than you’d think (about a third of graduates returned to Orkney and Shetland six months after graduation). One of the big questions for me is how far as careers advisers in HE we can help to support graduates who return to / live in more rural areas who may be at some distance from your classic ‘graduate labour markets’.

  3. This is such an interesting article – it got me thinking. I grew up in London and went to university at Royal Holloway College, which seemed to me to be in a sleepy rural backwater. Instead of getting used to having high street shops, museums and urban bus routes to negotiate, I had to adapt to strolling down to the village for food shopping and occasionally pushing on through to Windsor Great park for a long walk. Uni for this urban student was an opportunity to transform to a more rural lifestyle, and I never went back. I don’t know if there are many campus colleges outside of cities nowadays.
    Of course, in the seventies, ideas about class were much easier to define, but higher education was definitely seen as a way – perhaps the way – of ‘moving up in the world,’ and you did adapt. I lost my South London accent pretty quickly.

    1. That is interesting… I remember some of my fellow students at Oxford complaining that the city was too small (compared to London). I guess that’s geographical adaptation of a different kind!

  4. This article has really sparked my interest and caused me to think back to my own experiences of moving in to Higher Education. Also coming from a very rural setting in the very north of Scotland and a working class background (joiner and stay at home mum who ran our B&B), both my parents worked very hard to make sure we had opportunities to improve our lives. Although I went to another rural college initially (my parents thought I was too young for the big city) it was still a big move to a much more urban setting than I was used to. I will always remember the conversation with fellow students when I tried to explain where I came from and was met with the endless questions of whether we had electricity and lived with the sheep! This gave me the confidence in life to realise I was much less ignorant than those from the insular cities and towns. When I moved to London this outlook was even further enhanced. Thankfully with the experience of urban life in college and working in London, university was much less of a shock and I have become much more tolerant of ignorance. These urban experiences have certainly expanded my outlook and confidence to educate my own students now that I am also back in a rural location.

    1. Thank you Susan – it’s great to hear about your experience too. Interesting that your confidence was built by feeling like you had a wider outlook than your more urban contemporaries…

  5. Rosie, this is a really interesting and thought-provoking piece. Although university participation is widening, university does seem more comfortably set up for young people from a certain set of backgrounds and the further you deviate from that set model, the more dislocating you can find it.

    My personal culture shock was in coming from a small post-industrial town and a modest background in the north of England in the early 90s and encountering what can only be called prejudice from people from more affluent backgrounds from the south of the country when I attended Warwick. I didn’t have the confidence to deal with it; it was a tremendous shock. I particularly remember being told to speak ‘proper English’, and I have never forgotten that moment. I dealt with it by volunteering for all sorts of activities to ‘validate’ my attendence at the university.

    Not all aspects of my background were a disadvantage but the ones that were felt very jarring. I do think this is at least partly a class issue and is of a piece with the experiences you describe.

    1. Hi Charlie, thanks for your comments – there seems to maybe be a bit of a theme about the dominance of ‘London and the South East’ both in terms of the graduate labour market and in terms of experiences of class in moving away for university! It’s also interesting to note that you don’t think all aspects of your background were a disadvantage – there’s been a bit of work in Australia that shows young people turning the ‘rural’ badge to their advantage on entry to HE and the graduate labour market…. It’s also amazing how often accent has come up in my research… there’s scope for quite a few more blogs on the topic I think…!

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