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

1 Comment

“cultural location… is a much better model for explaining social mobility than is the mechanistic undialectical notion of ‘intelligence’.”

This statement was made by Paul Willis in his classic 1977 book ‘Learning to Labour: how working class kids get working class jobs’ which I have been reading this summer. In the book Willis follows a group of young ‘lads’ as they make the transition from school to work, and comes to some fascinating and challenging conclusions.


Perhaps the most challenging part of the book is that Willis attempts to demonstrate how the lads’ reactions to school and careers guidance processes while appearing ‘radical’ in some respects actually helps maintain the status quo by preparing them well for working class jobs. So, for example Willis shows how counter-school culture bears some similarities with factory floor culture.

Although Willis’ book is dated in the experiences he describes – with vast changes in the economy since the 1970s – there were still a number of points that made me reflect. First of all, was his challenge that any economy relies on large numbers of low and semi-skilled jobs which are essentially the same. For people entering these kinds of jobs, the standard careers-adviser questions about ‘job choice’ don’t make a great deal of sense. Similarly he talks about the ‘educational fallacy’ that upward mobility simply requires individual effort and achievement, stating that this can only ever be possible for a small number of people not the working class as a whole, as the economy requires a large number of lower level jobs. For Willis the ‘lads’ in his study ‘expose’ these fallacies for what they are, but are unable to mobilise any radical response to their insights because of various limitations – which are basically other strongly held beliefs that lead them to accept their lower occupational positioning on the basis of other kinds of superiority (such as sexual superiority coming from the machismo of doing hard physical labour).

Now, for my study into rural young people, this is interesting in terms of the way that different young people may respond to the prevailing ideology of their school and careers guidance provision. However, there is also a larger question raised about how the ‘lads’ view careers guidance as (generally) not appropriate to their context. And this got me thinking about how the rural context may also lend itself (sometimes) to a perception that careers guidance is not very relevant. In a rural community like Orkney for instance, if someone wants to stay on the island, then sometimes the notion of ‘choosing’ a career may be inappropriate – because choices are limited, with many training routes unavailable on the island, and numbers of people employed in different sectors sometimes so small that unless someone retires or moves job there may never be an opportunity to work in a particular role. So, I wonder how the realities of rural life impact on perceptions of careers advice and then impact on uptake and experience of careers guidance services? I also wonder if careers guidance is different in its very nature in rural areas – for example I know that many of my conversations centre around thinking about broad kinds of work that interest a client and how to generate opportunities, build networks and create ‘luck’, rather than finding the ‘ideal career’.