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Durham e-Theses
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Non-traditional students as field outsiders: a case study of the institutional sub-field of an ‘elite’ university and its role in social reproduction

Non-traditional students as field outsiders: a case study of the institutional sub-field of an ‘elite’ university and its role in social reproduction.
Doctoral thesis, Durham University.

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This thesis explores the perceptions and experiences of non-traditional students at a high-tariff, prestigious and so-called ‘elite’ university in the UK. The premise of this research is that universities that sit at the top of UK league tables constitute a distinct segment of the higher education field, characterised by a homogenous demographic intake of middle- class and advantaged students and the relative security it provides its graduates in accessing professional employment. Existing research indicates that there is a significant pool of qualified non-traditional students who opt to study elsewhere (Sutton Trust and HEFCE, 2004; Boliver, 2013), and government and institutional interventions primarily aim to change this through raising the aspirations of these students (Byrom, 2009). In response to these findings, this PhD research contributes to updating the evidence base through three novel approaches. Firstly, it moves beyond deficit approaches to the changes that universities themselves can make to become inclusive environments. To do so, it adopts a qualitative case study of one ‘elite’ HEI - Durham University - to explore the culture of a university holistically and the processes and practices that underpin it. Secondly, it employs an immersive research design - including a longitudinal interviews - with first year students who self-define as coming from a background where going to university was not common. This produces detailed insight into their prior perceptions of the university and their social experiences whilst at it – in relation to the institutional culture - at a level of detail unmatched by other studies. Thirdly, the research conceptualises the university as a “social field” (Bourdieu, 1966). My Bourdieusian analysis of data shows how students who may be seen to have “won” the “game” of the UK Higher Education field by entering an ‘elite’ institution, and who take up objectively similar positions to each other in the HE field once they do so, actually face very different experiences, opportunities and likely outcomes due to their social background, associated habitus and levels of capital. I find that the University draws on its historical position as a “field outsider” to position itself as “distinct” (Bourdieu, 1984) in today’s marketized HE field. Internally, the institutional field of the collegiate university is still structured around the habitus of the elite and “invented traditions” (Hosbawm and Ranger, 1983) are used to claim the legitimacy of this field structure. Initially, participants were attracted to these practices and saw them as markers of the institution’s high quality, which they sought in order to gain the symbolic capital of a Durham degree to become upwardly socially mobile. In reality, however, the internal social structure of the collegiate system requires a fitting habitus and extremely high levels of economic capital for participation, excluding those without. It is on these grounds that I make recommendations for change to make the social and cultural environment of this ‘elite’ university a more inclusive space.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Sociology, Department of
Thesis Date:2021
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:28 Jun 2021 16:32

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