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Our problem, not theirs: young white, working class males and higher education

  • 11 March 2024
  • By Neil Raven
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Neil Raven, independent educational consultant.

This is a personal perspective on one of the most enduring challenges facing those of us working to widen university participation (WP). My involvement in this subject dates back to 2007. That year, as Aimhigher East Midlands’ projects manager, I oversaw the launch of an initiative aimed at identifying and seeking to address the barriers to HE progression faced of young white men from working class backgrounds. The project combined a commitment to conduct research with compiling a repository of good practice and hosting a national conference. It was motivated by a recognition that these young men were among those from non-traditional backgrounds least likely to go onto university-level study.

Little seems to have changed in the intervening period. Seven years later, in 2014, a national UCU survey of young people’s perceptions of post-18 education revealed that young men from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely to state an intention to progress than their more affluent peers, or women from the same background as them. Participation figures reflected these reservations. Fast forward to 2017, and the challenge of addressing low progression rates amongst this group of young people was highlighted in a set of interviewees with outreach practitioners. The very same sentiments were captured in a survey reported by Atherton and Mazhari two years later. In both instances, raising HE participation rates amongst white working class males was judged to be amongst the most daunting challenges faced by WP practitioners. The most recent set of figures suggest the participation gap remains.

As to the reasons for this, the argument I advanced in a recent HEPI blog emphasised the costs, or risks, associated with the higher education option for this group. This went beyond financial costs to include opportunity costs (what would be sacrificed), the costs of employment and training, as well as lifestyle and emotional costs. Some feared higher education would be just like school. There were also identity costs, associated with fitting into an unfamiliar environment.

Whilst progress in widening access has been made on many fronts, it appears that tackling this specific outreach challenge has floundered. However, at the local level, there are good examples of interventions that have made a positive impact on white working class young men. These include interventions that successfully enhance young boys’ understanding of what HE involves, who goes to university, and the rewards it can bestow. Moreover, many of these initiatives share the same key components: listening and responding to the learner voice, recognising and working with key influences, and drawing on relatable role models.

Yet, these efforts seem lost against the backdrop of wider national trends. As a researcher, my first reaction is to advocate for more research. The most helpful studies will adopt a longitudinal and qualitative perspective and recognise that the decision-making process is an evolutionary and contextual one, subject to change over time and buffeted by a range of external forces. There is also a vital need for a greater understanding of the experiences of males from this background who do go onto HE and what happens to them once they graduate. We also need more nuanced and place-specific data on graduate outcomes (see also research from HESA and the Office for Students).

However, I am increasingly convinced that the solution needs to be more radical. Over the years, the emphasis has been on the need for these young men to change to progress into higher education and succeed once there. Early interventions were based on the deficit model, but more recently there has been a switch to equipping and empowering the individual. Yet this still requires them to adapt – economically, socially, culturally, even spatially. Perhaps, instead, the change should come from the sector. This includes where higher education is offered (ensuring it is local and accessible), when it is available (so that it fits in with other commitments, including employment), its duration (with individual modules that can be completed in a matter of weeks, and with the provision of intermediate level 4 and 5 awards), how it is delivered (allocating greater importance to work placements and employment opportunities), and what is covered (with a curriculum that recognises and values the experiences and perspectives of non-traditional students).

Such measures could reduce the comparative costs of higher education, whilst boosting the perceived benefits. Indeed, some HE providers are now offering programmes delivered three days a week, and at ‘times of the day that suit those with other commitments’, as well as providing multiple points in the year for enrolment, alongside establishing higher education centres in more deprived areas. Some of my current research should be able to determine the impact of these developments on higher education take up. In the meantime, I would be very interested in the views of readers.  

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  1. LRM says:

    I’m not an expert in this field, although I do have interests in social class, and in WP. My first thought is that the barriers you outline apply as much, or at least nearly as much, to working class females and non-white working class males – there’s nothing I can see here that’s exclusive to one subset of working class young people.

    So could the reason for low participation by young white working class males be because they have more (and more attractive) alternative options (particularly employment and training) than their female and non-white counterparts?

    I’m sure this has been considered, but I’ve not seen it mentioned or evaluated.

  2. Dr Andrew McDonnell says:

    The biggest hindrance is ideology. I came from a rural working-class community and people in that community told me what I was doing was ‘pretentious’ and had no value to them. I was the only one from my community to go to university and the first and last in my family to do so. This was in 1997. Very little has changed. I work in HE in and FE environment and have had many discussions with L3 students whose parents tell them that university is a waste of money. There is a thinking that without the right accent and connections, universities are simply for the middle classes to maintain their position. There is some truth to this. More working-class graduates need to go into schools but parents need inviting in too. We need a wider cultural advocacy.

  3. This is a matter that has been observed in the literature since at least the late 1980s.

    Surely, in any serious effort to get to grips with it one would expect to see concepts and issues of (male) identity, roles, culture(s), labour market(s), educational progression, pedagogical codes and so forth as well as detailed comparisons being made with the educational progress of girls and young women (why is the latter so much better than the former?). Unless the deep societal, economic and cultural levels of the structures at work are exposed and interrogated, efforts to confront the matter are surely not going to be sufficiently penetrative.

    Ronald Barnett

  4. Rod Bristow says:

    Thank you for the article with some good ideas. However, one of the causal problems in low access is the attainment gap at school leaving age. We should ensure this gap does not widen further at university, which it currently does. The problem isn’t only about ensuring access to HE, but also achievement in HE.

  5. Ros Lucas says:

    Agree, concentrate on lifelong learning, through different level Apprenticeships to make learning relevant from 14+ too, starting one day a week out in the community getting employability skills based on aptitudes and interests, not qualifications alone…
    HE for the future must adapt to hybrid learning – on-line and through modules appropriate for sectir industry if known or general business and accountancy through Functional Skills.
    The reason most self-employed fail is lack of business acumen and know how if running a business – many will not have chosen business studies but higher numbers did when given a choice of GNVQ BTEC or AVCE and many started their own businesses, particularly having completed an entrepreneurship module.

  6. albert wright says:

    There are some things that will change very slowly or even never change and this includes white working class males not progressing beyond level 2 or 3 in terms of education.

    The influence of family and friends on individuals can last for generations. “If this life is good enough for me it can be good enough for you.”

    The desire to earn rather than learn is the objective for some while for others living at home on benefits is seen as a desireable option.

    You cannot force some people to change their views about HE.

    Personally, I don’t think more research will make any difference. Some people have no ambition and no wish to change.

    I wouldn’t worry about it.

  7. Mick Marriott says:

    Well said, myself and my colleagues and friends Mr Dom Battison and Dr Rob Bailey have discussed this very subject in depth, due to it being the same as our own socio-economic backgrounds.
    By failing to address this elephant in the room, we will once again deprive yet another generation from the opportunities and life changing benefits Higher Education brings.

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