One of the most surprising aspects of the English educational system—speaking as a non-English who does research on higher education (HE)—is how imbalanced it is for almost every student involved. Let me explain what I mean by this.
How I ended up doing research on higher education in England
I started my doctoral research at The Open University in October 2016, investigating English undergraduate students’ discourses, practices, and experiences. Specifically, I wanted to critically unpack the contemporary construction of the student as a consumer.
During my data collection, which started in 2016 and continued until the end of 2019, I had the opportunity to interview several students, some of them at yearly intervals. The first group I had access to was constituted by middle to upper-middle class students. All had studied in private schools and were attending, or had applied to, Russell Group universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
At the end of the interviews, I asked some of them if they could introduce me to some friends or colleagues who had studied in state schools. Surprisingly—at least for me—none of them had close friends from underprivileged backgrounds or who had studied in state schools.
This made me think of my educational experience in another European country.
How my educational experience influenced my approach to my research
My education in Portugal was always in state schools, from the first day in kindergarten to my last day in university, and I always had friends and colleagues from very different socioeconomic backgrounds, with very different life stories. Moreover, in the Portuguese educational system, with some notable exceptions, state schools and state universities were considered better than the private ones, so students from different social classes were used to share the same educational space.
Consequently, I decided to explore how English undergraduates—from different economic, social, and cultural backgrounds and studying in various types of universities—experience and view HE and to what extent they perceive themselves and act as consumers. One of my aims was to analyse the effect of students’ backgrounds on the way they construct HE and position themselves in the field.
For instance, do private school educated HE students (i.e., students who are used to pay for their education) and state school educated ones (i.e., students not used to pay for their education) view the payment of high fees similarly? And to what extent does this influence how they perceive themselves and their practices in their everyday life as students?
For this purpose, I conducted one-on-one semi-structured qualitative interviews with English HE students in England and Scotland, including a longitudinal aspect, with students being interviewed at yearly intervals. The study includes students from different social classes originating from both private and state secondary schools who, at the time of the interview, were on a gap year or attending different types of universities.
What I found out
My findings show that for a considerable number of participants, HE studies is an instrumental project whose primary purpose is to lead to future employability. Moreover, many students argue that paying high fees places them in a position somewhat similar to that of a consumer or a customer. This positioning, however, does not translate into concrete actions in their everyday life as students.
Yet, importantly, the findings show that students’ educational background influences how they view HE. Indeed, the comparison of state school students’ accounts with private school ones suggests that some of the former tend to construct education as a public good that should be free. In contrast, most of the latter tend to assess the fairness of the payment of fees by comparing the number of contact hours, the prospects of employability and the future earnings of different courses.
I have always believed that HE should be a human right, not because everyone should feel compelled to pursue HE studies, but because everyone should have that option, regardless of their social class, gender, ethnicity, or nationality. However, in the English education system there are no equal opportunities for working-class students.
Moreover, it is a system that seems to give many privileged students a false worldview, disconnecting them from essential aspects of social reality. I believe students from different backgrounds should have the possibility to study together in schools that promote fully embodied affective encounters, as only those have the potential to transform their future selves still in formation.
Note: This blog post is an updated and edited version of a previous one written in April 2020 for the think tank Private Education Policy Forum.
Carlos Azevedo is a doctoral researcher at The Open University who is about to conclude his doctoral thesis. He is based at the Business School and his research critically explores UK HE undergraduate students’ discourses and practices. Following Stuart Hall, Carlos believes that ‘the university is a critical institution or it is nothing’. You can follow him on Twitter.