Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


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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.

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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).

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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?

Notes

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!

References

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


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Cornwall to Orkney: was it destiny….?!

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“Positive image is vital for the West” my prize winning schoolgirl essay published In the Western Morning News, May 24th 1997

Tidying up, I just found an essay I wrote when I was 16 which was published in the Western Morning News after it was placed second in the Western Morning News – South West Enterprise Limited Business Essay competition in 1997. This is the opening of the essay, I think you’ll see why it made me laugh….!

“As a whole the Westcountry has a poor economy, characterised by high levels of unemployment and migration, and decreasing levels of industry. To improve the economy these processes have to be reversed.

To do this the area has to develop a policy committed to improving further education facilities and communications, particularly in the form of information technology and Internet links.”

I go on to argue:

‘One of the major reasons that talented young people leave the region is the lack of further education facilities. The universities in Plymouth and Exeter offer good opportunities, but are still somewhat distant for students in the far north or south of the region. So further education facilities should be made more available within the Westcountry.

To do this a branch of an existing university could be built to service the remoter students, perhaps on the north coast around Barnstaple…. Universities in the Westcountry could also develop intern[et] links allowing students to participate in further education while  at home…. In Scotland the University of the Highlands is developing this method of computer links, which it uses with some success…’

See why I found this funny?! Apparently regional development and  the role of the university sector has been of significant interest since  I was in my teens. What surprises me looking at this is that my comments preceded the development of the Combined Universities in Cornwall initiative and looked to the University of the Highlands and Islands as a model. Who would have thought that seventeen years later I would be working for the University of the Highlands and Islands, working on practical delivery of careers guidance through web technologies, and studying a PhD in higher education and migration in a rural community…?! Who would also have thought that Combined Universities in Cornwall would have taken off, and that now I look to them as an alternative model of education delivery in a rural area….? What I am struck by is how my perspectives on these issues have changed very little, even if my writing style and acacdemic rigour have (hopefully) improved somewhat!

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Me and the other prize winner at the awards ceremony…. Don’t we look young!

Within the essay my other main argument is the need to stimulate new businesses, and particularly skills based industries in the region. I state that skills based industries ‘will employ highly skilled labourers, who generally prefer to live in an attractive rural than urban environment’ and I ‘discourage extra road building as this will lead to a deterioration of the environment, which, if anything would discourage the skilled industries’. These are interesting ideas, and I suspect come from a projection of my own desire to live in a rural environment. From my perspective now I wouldn’t agree with my younger self, instead I believe that some people will want to live in rural environments and some people would prefer to live in urban environments. However, it did remind me of some debates about how to quantify the value of natural resources and to account for this in calculations of the value of infrastructure development. The role of image, culture, and place making which is almost the subtext to my essay is also very much part of debates on how to attract migrants to areas.

I had one other argument in my essay too – which was about extending and diversifying the tourist base for the westcountry. As part of this argument I suggested extending the tourist season and thought that ‘a high profile advertising strategy could be employed, such as that used to attract tourists to the Scottish Highlands in  Autumn’. Which again made me smile: sitting, as I am in my home in the Scottish islands looking out over a rather dreich autum / winter afternoon. Ever felt that somehow your destiny is mapped out for you….?!


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Place and identity

I have just returned from a tour of the South of England – travelling to Cornwall, Brighton and central London visiting family and friends. As I travelled I was struck by the differences between these places, socially and culturally, and how my family and friends had made choices to move to, and live in, these places.

This got me thinking about the way we might identify with places, as being ‘for us’ or ‘not for us’. So, for instance one of my gay friends once said that they only wanted to live in London, Manchester or Brighton where he would find ‘his people’: reflecting the vibrant gay scenes in these cities. In much migration literature, the economic view is dominant – this is the idea that where we move to will be predominantly stimulated by economic choices (such as the availability of work). In perspectives on migration that focus on economic values the importance of place in relation to identity may be overshadowed.

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Back in 1992, Fielding argued that ‘migration tends to expose one’s personality, it expresses one’s loyalties and reveals one’s values and attachments (often previously hidden). It is a statement of an individual’s world-view, and is, therefore, an extremely cultural event’ (Fielding, 1992: 201). Speaking to other friends in London, I was struck by the way they casually discussed what ‘type’ of person would be found in Brixton or Hoxton and how far different places were associated with clothing styles, values, and other aspects of identity. In London, where good public transport means that you don’t have to live and work in the same community, the choice of where to live for these friends was absolutely a question of identity rather than anything else (as long as they were in reasonable walking distance of a tube station!).