Adviser on the Edge

careers in island communities: research, theory and practice


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


Widening Access in Rural Areas

The Scottish Government has just published “A Blueprint for Fairness: The Final Report of the Commission on Widening Access”. 


The report concerns widening access generally, but makes a few interesting points with regards to rurality and widening access:

  1. The report recognises that the continued use of the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) is ‘less likely to identify those from disadvantaged backgrounds in more rural areas’ because it identifies geographical concentrations of deprivation, and in rural areas the population is generally more geographically dispersed. However, in the absence of any strong alternatives, the report recommends the continued use of SIMD as a marker of deprivation. This is disappointing for those of us working in rural areas, and with individuals who may experience significant deprivation – however in the absence of any strong alternatives the recommendation is understandable, and it is good to see that, at least, the issues with use of SIMD are being foregrounded.
  2. Recommendation 18 specifically mentions rural areas: “Universities, colleges and local authorities should work together to provide access to a range of Higher and Advanced Higher subjects, which ensures that those from disadvantaged backgrounds or living in rural areas are not restricted in their ability to access higher education by the subject choices available to them.” In contrast to the first point, this is a really welcome recommendation – it is absolutely true that students in small rural schools may have less choice over their subjects than in other larger schools. In my experience this can lead to students either feeling unable to undertake certain training routes, or having to take a less-than-ideal training route e.g. undertaking a crash-Higher course in order to access their preferred training.
  3. Finally it is good to see that at the end of the report there is recognition that the authors have had to focus their findings on one specific area: access to the core provision of higher education for those from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds or those with care experience. As they note, to their regret they have not been able to focus on a number of areas, including ‘Access to HE for those from rural areas’. Again it’s great to see that access to HE from rural areas is noted as an area of interest, even if the report does not address this to any significant extent.

Overall although it is disappointing that we have retained the SIMD as a marker of deprivation, it is good to see that rural issues are being noted by the authors of the report, and it is great to see that increased flexibility in education pathways is being identified as important for rural communities and rural people.

If you’re interested in this blog you may also be interested in my previous blog on Social Mobility in Rural Areas. It is also maybe useful to note that there is some research on access to HE from rural areas specifically – for example the research coming from St Andrews about Access to HE for rural communities  As ever I would be interested to hear your thoughts too!



Rural labour markets of the future?

Charlie Ball (who writes the High Peak Data blog) has just written about his predictions for the graduate labour market in 2016… In his blog he makes this prediction:

The urbanisation of graduate work

Graduate employment is concentrated in cities, and that shows no sign of of changing soon. Over 40% of the working population in Newcastle, Manchester, York, Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Bath, Oxford, Cambridge, Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow had a degree or equivalent at the end of 2014, and when we get figures for 2015, Liverpool, Nottingham, Leicester, Birmingham, Coventry, Norwich, Ipswich and Southampton could all have joined the list. For graduates looking for work – look to the cities. Smaller urban areas, and rural areas, will have some roles, but mainly in a public sector which is likely to continue to lose jobs.

For policy – graduates will play an increasingly important role in urban economies, and we need to get to grips with a future where the largest group of employees in many of our cities – in some cases a majority, and not just in London – will have degrees.

Interesting eh? Reading this I wonder – if more and more graduate jobs are in cities, what is happening to the experience of graduates who choose a different path and live in rural areas? Partly, yes, their employment prospects will be different (with graduate jobs in rural areas, as Charlie notes, mainly focused on the public sector), but there will also, potentially, be social or psychological impacts. How would it be, for instance to be the only one from your university friends who chooses to live in a location other than London or another city? How would you feel? Would this experience impact on your future choices…? All of these are questions to ponder, and I would be interested in your thoughts…


Social Mobility in Rural Areas

Last week I was invited to attend a meeting at Holyrood to discuss the issue of Social Mobility in Scotland alongside key business figures and Annabelle Ewing the MSP for youth and women’s employment. It was a small meeting which covered a huge amount of territory in terms of the issues around Social Mobility, and I was invited particularly to offer a rural perspective on the issue. As a result I thought it might be useful to try and summarise my thoughts about Social Mobility in rural Scotland for this blog.

 Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at

Edinburgh: where I was last week visiting the Scottish Parliament Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee at

What is Social Mobility?

Social Mobility is difficult to define, but according to BIS the concept “is often used to refer to the ability of individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds to move up in the world, akin to the notion of equality of opportunity.” Thinking about what ‘moving up in the world’ might mean, it is clear that central to the notion of social mobility is access to ‘higher level’ jobs (i.e. those with status, responsibility and / or relatively high pay). Although actions to improve social mobility may include improving access of disadvantaged pupils to higher education – such as in Widening Participation initiatives – simply improving access is not enough. As the Futuretrack reports have shown, there is a ‘cumulative pattern of advantage’, whereby privileged undergraduate students continue to experience privileged access to graduate employment.

Why privilege continues to exert an impact during and after undergraduate studies has been much debated. As the Milburn report ‘Fair Access to Professional Careers’ pointed out, young people from privileged backgrounds often have better access to the professions than similarly qualified peers, because of their abilities to secure and undertake internships. Privilege may advantage young people both in terms of the networks they have (helping to set up internships) and their financial resources (meaning that they may be more able to undertake unpaid internships). Importantly the Futuretrack reports showed that access to networks comes from friends and family, and that although higher education might offer the potential to meet and network with other people “students from less traditional backgrounds are often limited in the extent to which they are able and/or willing to engage in networking with other students and in particular with those who have higher levels of social and cultural capital. Consequently, these more excluded students lack the resources to find graduate employment that their more advantaged peers possess, and as a result are more likely to become excluded graduates, working in non-graduate employment and not realising the social and economic benefits of HE. (FutureTrack stage 4 report, p. xxvi)

Rural Social Mobility

So what relevance does all of this discussion have for the issue of social mobility in a rural area? I will try to summarise my main thoughts below:

  1. Difficulties of defining ‘disadvantage’ in rural areas. Some of the most widely used measures of ‘disadvantage’ are based on postcode areas (e.g. the SIMD or POLAR classifications). However, in rural areas disadvantage is less easy to identify, as population densities are lower, and therefore postcode areas tend to contain a wider mix of wealth and poverty. This means that rural areas, and the people that live in them don’t necessarily appear in classifications of ‘disadvantage’ – and therefore issues of rural social mobility may be largely hidden from the view of policy makers.
  2. Differences in the Rural Labour Market. Rural areas are typically characterised by higher levels of public sector employment and employment in service industries as well as sometimes high levels of employment in agriculture, fishing or resource extractive industries. Senior corporate roles are under-represented in rural labour markets, as will be certain industries such as publishing and finance which are heavily based in urban areas. With exposure to qualitatively different labour markets it is likely that young people’s awareness of and contact with the working world will be qualitatively different in rural areas – impacting on the informal advice, support and networking they may access as well as opportunities for work experience in their local communities.
  3. Distance between rural and urban labour markets. With some jobs simply not available in rural areas, and with the majority of university courses and internships available in urban areas, rural young people are potentially faced with an additional barrier for many opportunities: migration. Moving to a city some distance from home can be challenging, especially if the young person does not have any prior connections to the area. Privileged young people in rural areas may have families who own second homes in urban areas, or who have more contacts in urban areas, disadvantaged young people may have no such connections.
  4. Differences in rural values. There is some evidence to suggest that rural areas are characterised by different values than urban areas. In particular egalitarianism is often associated with rural areas. This is important, because modesty may be valued in rural areas to an extent not mirrored in urban and corporate environments. Similarly in rural communities where public sector work provides significant employment, working values that prioritise social good over earning high wages may be more apparent. The values young people are surrounded by, and potentially adopt themselves, may therefore impact on the kinds of jobs they seek and value.

So, in summary, in rural areas issues of social mobility may ‘look’ quite different to urban areas. In some respects greater social diversity within individual postcode areas may mean greater opportunities for mixing with different people and gaining different insights into different lifestyles. However, the lack of exposure to some kinds of profession, community values that emphasise egalitarianism, and the distances involved in accessing some training and employment opportunities may significantly impact on the accessibility of certain kinds of work among rural young people.

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“People are happiest living in an area that matches their personality, claim researchers”

Earlier this week I came across a news report about a piece of research conducted in London. The researchers used responses from 56,000 Londoners to create maps showing personality types across the districts of the city. Conscientiousness, agreeableness and extraversion are just some of the traits they mapped. Alongside mapping personality traits the researchers mapped life satisfaction and concluded that “these findings demonstrate how individuals with different personality dispositions derive life satisfaction from different aspects of their social and physical environments” (quoted from the abstract to their paper: ‘Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area’.)

Albeit that this research is based on personality traits within an urban residential area, the article reminded me of my earlier blog post on ‘place and identity’ which considered the different attractions of different places within the UK, and speculated a link to identity. Personally I think I prefer the notion of a link between place and identity rather than between place and personality per se. This is because I think focusing on a discrete individual ‘personality’ might tend to overlook the role of social and cultural construction of our self-concept. So, for example, one of the things I am interested in is how we might become socialised into our environments – with, say, potentially rural young people having quite a different experience of place to more urban young people. So, how does where we are brought up, and our experiences in other environments (for example places we moved to, schools, university) influence our ideas about ourselves and our environments and therefore our future choices of places to live that would suit ‘someone like me’? I guess this is one of the major themes of my PhD, and something I’m hoping to get an insight into when I start interviewing participants later this year!

Reference: Jokela, Bleidorn, Lamb, Gosling, Rentfrow (2015) ‘Geographically varying associations between personality and life satisfaction in the London metropolitan area’ PNAS January 12, 2015

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Cornwall to Orkney: was it destiny….?!


“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!


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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Turning points in career and migration decisions

I have just read two quite different research papers, the first by Christopher Atkin looks at young people’s decisions at post-sixteen from a rural community and the second by Catriona Ni Laoire, looks at the phenomenon of return migration to the Republic of Ireland.

So, these are quite different pieces of research right? The first looks at choices of young people from a rural area, and the other looks at adults originally from a rural area and their decision to return to that area after a period of time away. However there are some similarities that I noticed:

  1. Both pieces of research take a biographical perspective: looking at participant’s stories about their decisions and how they came to make them.
  2. Both pieces of research identify a great deal of complexity in terms of the relationship of individuals to places. In both pieces of research the particularly salient feature of place seems to be the family and friendship networks that exist in the rural ‘home’ of participants rather than other factors (e.g. physical environment).
  3. Both pieces of research note the importance of family and friends on decision making. Family and friendship networks are heavily influential in terms of post sixteen choices of rural young people. Family is also heavily influential in terms of the decision of older migrants to return ‘home’.
'Turning points' are key to Hodkinson's idea of 'careership'. Image courtesy of phanlop88 at

‘Turning points’ are key to Hodkinson’s idea of ‘careership’. Image courtesy of phanlop88 at


Alongside these similarities both pieces of research note that individual decisions may be heavily influenced by key ‘turning points’ in individual’s biographies. Atkin notes that grammar school selection, the divorce of parents or bereavement all act as “‘life changing’ moments” for participants in his study. For Ni Laoire, she takes a life-course perspective on migration which more generally identifies that choices are made at the intersection between ‘the individual life course, the family life-cycle and historical time’. This makes turning points more fundamental to her work, and in particular she notes stimuli like the breakdown of a relationship or having children as turning points that stimulate the return migration.

As Hodkinson notes, the notion of turning points is one that is drawn on in many life-course studies (Hodkinson, 1997: 39). He describes turning points as times when ‘a person goes through a significant transformation of identity’. From this perspective, biographical development is not uniform, but marked by periods of stability (and routine) interspersed with significant changes – a kind of ‘biographical discontinuity’ (Alheit).  Although these ideas aren’t drawn upon directly by Atkin, it is clear that in his notion of “‘life changing’ moments” has some relation to turning points.

Hodkinson goes on to note different kinds of turning points:

    1. Structural: that is those prompted by social and cultural structures, like the end of compulsory schooling in Atkins’ study.
    2. Self-initiated:  that is the person themselves prompts a transition, perhaps like the choice to return to Ireland in Ni Laoire’s study.
    3. Forced: that is those forced by external events or the actions of others, for example parental divorce in Atkins’ study.

The interesting thing here is that where turning points are noted as important in biographical approaches to migration (such as Ni Laoire’s), Hodkinson discusses turning points in terms of career decisions. Indeed, I wonder how far single turning points may be important in both career and migration decisions. There are certainly clear examples of where structural turning points impact on career and migration decisions – such as the end of A level / Highers and the consequent decisions to enter Higher Education (because what university students decide to  join is is both a career and a migration decision). On the other hand self-initiated turning points – such as the decision to leave higher education prematurely and return home – may also involve both migration and career decisions. Further, if as Hodkinson suggests turning points are points where there is a ‘significant transformation of identity’ it can be surmised that in many cases changed identity may impact both on career and migration decisions – and an example of this might be the eleven plus examinations identified by Atkin as a “life changing” moment – at this point a young person may be identified as academically able, and this will structure their career decisions, in  particular making university entry more likely, and therefore also leading to potential migration for higher education.


Ni Laoire, C (2008) ”Settling back?’ A biographical and life-course perspective on  Ireland’s recent return migration’ in Irish Geography 41(2)

Atkin, C (2002) ‘The influence of regional culture on post-sixteen educational choices and directions from school in Lincolnshire: a qualitative study’ PhD thesis

Hodkinson and Sparkes (1997) ‘Careership: A Sociological Theory of Career Decision Making’