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The cost of participation: perceptions of higher education amongst young, white British males from areas of educational disadvantage

  • 2 January 2024
  • By Neil Raven
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Neil Raven, Independent educational consultant.

The comparatively low rates of higher education (HE) progression amongst young men from white, working class backgrounds has received a significant amount of attention in recent years, including from HEPI. This has been accompanied by calls for a ‘response’ from the HE sector. Although how best to react remains uncertain. Indeed, a survey of those working in widening access found that the aim of increasing levels of ‘HE participation’ amongst ‘white students from lower socio-economic groups’ represents ‘their biggest challenge.’ Given such uncertainty, and questions over the effectiveness of past interventions, a strong case can be made for more research into the ‘barriers to progression experienced’ by these young men.

Methods and approach

In seeking to contribute to the evidence base, I was commissioned to conduct a study into the educational ambitions and motivations of young, white British males from five areas of educational and economic disadvantage across the North West of England. This blog reflects on some of the key findings to emerge from the research. Prominent amongst these findings were the views held by participants on higher education as a possible post-18 destination. These views were gathered using focus groups, with 70 young men aged between 14 and 17 taking part in these discussions. All were from schools and colleges whose catchments comprised neighbourhoods where few young people, and fewer than expected given level 2 (GCSE and equivalent) attainment, go onto university. The explanatory framework used in this study applied the concept of costs of participation to understand their HE reservations.


Although they came from a range of different communities across the NW and ranged in age, ‘many of the same doubts and concerns’ were expressed by participants. These included the direct costs of HE. Indeed, the ‘expense’ was described as ‘one of the biggest deterrents to going to university,’ with reference made to the potential for the financial consequences to be ‘overwhelming.’ Their concerns related not just to fees but also to the ability to ‘pay for food, clothes, bills [and] everything’ else.

The opportunity costs of university also loomed large in these discussions. HE participation would mean foregoing the chance to gain work experience, secure employment or an apprenticeship, and acquire essential ‘life skills.’ In addition, there was the risk (non-pecuniary cost) that a higher education would not necessarily lead to a desired job. The HE option also came with lifestyle and emotional costs. For a number of participants, university was viewed as being ‘likeschool’ and, consequently, unlikely to be an agreeable experience. Linked to this were concerns regarding ‘the way subjects would be delivered and how one would be expected to learn,’ with reference made to the prospect of attending ‘lectures’ and having to manage ‘loads of work.’ It was also considered to require a great deal of ‘reading [and] writing,’ when there was a desire to ‘get out and get doing’ (Raven, 2022, 656).

Perhaps more fundamentally, concerns were expressed about not fitting in (identify costs). One participant considered that they would not enjoy university because ‘I just don’t think it’s me.’ Whilst they acknowledge that it would be beneficial ‘to experience it first-hand, to know what it’s like,’ they did not ‘want to take that risk.’ Similarly, concerns were raised amongst focus groups members about their ‘ability to succeed’ in HE (failure conscious costs). Here, reference was made to the anxiety of ‘going and not passing’ and, consequently, of ‘not getting anything out of it.’ (Raven, 2022, 656-657).


Whilst the article this blog draws from and has reflected upon was recently published, the findings it is based on were gathered just before Covid struck. Yet, evidence indicates that the pandemic has had the most damaging impact on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, my own work suggests that it has reinforced long-held anxieties over the costs of a higher education, in part because of the challenging labour market conditions generated by the pandemic, including with young people witnessing its impact on parental employment. Whilst the teaching professionals I interviewed for this study were commenting on the situation faced by those from disadvantaged backgrounds in general, their classes would have included a good number young white working class males.

It also seems reasonable to argue that the current cost of living crisis will have a disproportionate impact on the post-18 intentions of this same group. For these young men, recent events are likely to have made HE seem an even costlier option than it was for the participants in my original study. However, these remain speculative claims. The Office for Students, as HE regulator, has emphasised the importance of evaluation. Yet,  there is also a need to recognise, and support, WP research, including investigations that can provide us with a more detailed insight into the experiences and perspectives of white working class males. In addition, whilst some of these young men do go onto HE, we know little about what happens to them once they leave university. The regulator and sector should be encouraged to provide more nuanced and place-specific data on graduate outcomes (financial, and otherwise). We would then have evidence on whether the benefits of HE outweigh the costs for this group, and indeed others who have reservations over the value of HE. 

Acknowledgments Thank you to Ant Sutcliffe, Dr Hannah Merry and Chris Bayes, who were the originators and drivers behind the idea to conduct the original investigation.

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1 comment

  1. Les Ebdon says:

    Thank you for such a perceptive and helpful article. Obviously cost, particularly opportunity cost, remains a big barrier but I was interested in the identification of learning style as another significant perceptual barrier. Universities perhaps need to do better on publicising the different learning styles promoted in higher education. It is not always ‘just like school.’

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