The Paired Peers: ‘The role of universities in social mobility’

On Wednesday 03rd July 2013 two of the BSA Bourdieu study group co-conveners Dr Nicola Ingram and Jessie Abrahams  were part of a final dissemination event: ‘The role of universities in social mobility’ for the Paired Peers project.

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The Paired Peers is a three year longitudinal project researching the impact of higher education within two different universities: the University of Bristol a ‘Russell Group’ elite research institution and the University of the West of England an ex-polytechnic in the same English city of Bristol.

Researchers matched students across subject disciplines at the two universities as well as those from ‘traditional’ university-going backgrounds and ‘non-traditional’ students, those who were the first in their families to enter Higher Education. Where possible, they also attempted to maintain an equal gender balance. The objective was to enhance understanding of how attending university may either contribute to increased social mobility or reinforce existing patterns of class reproduction. The study aimed to help highlight conditions that can improve levels of social mobility.

‘The research examined motivations and routes into HE, academic, economic and social experiences, including the development of career aspirations, and an exploration of the geographical elements of the students’ experience (where students come from, where they live, how they travel to study, the use they make of the city. It also examined the importance of virtual spaces (access to up-to-date computer technology, use of social network sites) and investigated class differences in this area.’

Over the three years of the research findings received a lot of media attention including; on the topics of social class and masculinity and how students from an affluent, middle-class background often felt socially “out of place” at a post-1992 university, how middle class students engage in extra-curricular activities to get ahead and “maintain their middle-class position” when attending a ex-poly and the social chasm still exists between state and private school pupils while at university.

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The final dissemination event was well attended with standing room only at times. Many regular study group members were present. The event findings also received a lot of tweets. Key note speakers included: Melissa Benn, Phil Brown, Miriam David, Danny Dorling, Les Ebdon, Aaron Porter, Eric Thomas and Steve West. Of course one of the highlights was the question and answer session with the student panel, hearing directly from the students themselves about their experiences. Several commented on how much they enjoyed being part of the research revealing that the interviews were almost like therapy.

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Some of the key findings included:

•             ‘Students appreciate the value of a university degree, indeed many of them seeing it as an absolute necessity for career success.

•             They, often reluctantly, state they would be prepared to pay whatever was asked to get a degree

•             However, many question whether the current delivery of the degree represents value for money; common complaints are: lack of close contact with tutors and lecturers, boring lectures with lecturers simply reading from notes or summarising textbooks, inappropriate timetabling,  no contact with leading researchers, coursework not being marked.

•             When asked what universities should be spending scarce resources on there was a strong preference for more staff and better library resources, while there was a much lower rating for improved teaching accommodation and student union/leisure facilities. As one student put it, ‘we are here to get a degree not to have fun’.’

For the full report please click here.

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