Meritocracy, pragmatism and possibilities:  a working class female experience of university.

Meritocracy, pragmatism and possibilities: a working class female experience of university.

Sam Shields

There are differential patterns of access to higher education for men and women. More women than men are mature students (over 21 years old) (UCAS, 2018): UCAS data for 2018 show that the number of female applicants aged 25 – 29 was 12,810 compared with 6,480 for men in the same age category. This pattern is even more dramatic for older age groups. Working class women are more likely to be mature students than their middle-class counterparts. An interrupted educational history, such as returning to education in later life or having children before completing their education, is more predominant in working class women.

So the experience of going to university is powerfully shaped by class, gender and ethnicity – and the experiences of working class women in particular expose the myth that universities are benign meritocracies.  A meritocratic higher education system would mean that acceptance at the most prestigious institutions was based only upon intelligence and effort. Working class, female and minority ethnic students however are disproportionately located in the less esteemed ‘new’ universities. They have not had the benefit of factors such as a private education and geographical mobility that can aid entry into the elite institutions. And yet working-class students are often very accepting of the rhetoric about higher education being meritocratic, and they are often highly focused on how their academic capability and effort will lead to future rewards and benefits [1].

For many mature female students attending university is not an immediate or ‘natural’ decision, but something that has taken a great deal of consideration and thought. Female working class students at a post-1992 institution told me their stories about what Bourdieu and Wacquant [2] call the ‘costs and benefits’ of a university education. These women often faced challenges entering university, and they had to make constrained decisions about which university they could attend. When they arrived at university they faced balancing studying with other responsibilities. The future possibility of career fulfilment and financial security as a graduate helped them to maintain their motivation to continue. This article draws on excerpts from a vignette of one of these female working class students – Aisha (a pseudonym) – to illustrate the challenges of ‘becoming’ and ‘being’ an undergraduate for this demographic group. Aisha is an Asian British first-year undergraduate studying Counselling Psychology.

Aisha encapsulates the tenacity and determination that is often required for women in this demographic category to be eligible for a university place:

I started my A Levels 5 weeks after Ahmed [her son] was born. I know this sounds really harsh because I know most women take out five years, but I was so motivated I was so pushed and driven…in my second year [of A Levels]…I found out I was pregnant with Akira [her daughter]. I realised that I was due around my exams and people was pushing me going ‘no don’t do it. What if you go into labour?’ But I just did not listen to no one. I didn’t care if I’d gone into labour in the middle of my exams, but I just kind of took the risk and I did it and my last exam was three days before my due date. So as you can imagine it was massive, but I just did it.

As the first person to go to university in her family, Aisha does not have the cultural capital of others’ experiences to draw upon. Additionally, like many mature students, she is combining studying with family life. These caring responsibilities limited her choice of university to the one she could realistically travel to. Aisha highlights this pragmatically:

I can walk here [to university]… If it was too far away then I would never leave the house really…It’s just convenient.

Decisions about which university to apply to had to be balanced with childcare logistics and the financial costs of travelling. For other working-class women being able to keep their job also had to be factored in. In Aisha’s case it meant that childcare for relatively small periods of time could be provided by her mother and her husband, making it possible for her to attend her lectures. This is a far cry from middle class discourses of choosing a university, which tend to focus on prestigious university reputations, enabling students to move away from home, and the opportunity to experience relative independence [3].

Middle class parents are often able to provide financial support to facilitate independence. The support offered to Aisha was primarily practical and emotional, especially from her mother:

My mum always pushed me like all the time to go to university…so she’s really chuffed I’m at university.

Family ties acted as an important support network for enabling attendance at university. A study by Finn [4] identifies different levels of spatial mobility and the different types of support that may be offered by families. But working-class women often need to mobilise a particularly high level of commitment to succeed:

University work is done when the kids are in bed asleep. So I don’t sleep most of the time, but I get the little one [down] because she is really clingy with me by 7 o clock or half past seven at the latest. I get all the housework done and everyone fed and then I go upstairs on the computer and that’s how I do things.

Aisha’s comments about fitting her studying in around her family responsibilities indicate a habitus of working class female respectability [5] and highlight different aspects of her identity. Whilst she is focusing her time and energy on a course of action which she hopes will be transformative for her future prospects, she is also aware of the aspects of her identity as a mother and wife that require her to care for others and put her needs second.

Aisha’s comments also suggest the ways in which she has at least partially internalized a neoliberal discourse.  She believes that her ‘success’ or ‘failure’ are her own responsibility. If she works hard – she will be successful. Reay [6] points out that working class students, typically located in post-1992 institutions, find that their degrees are devalued. She argues that for the majority of working class students, social mobility is a fantasy. The success of a working-class student being accepted into Oxbridge or to study Medicine is individual social mobility for the ‘lucky’ few. The prospect of this kind of individual social mobility is however significant in keeping alive the political rhetoric of a meritocratic higher education system by successive governments. A recent example comes from  Prime Minister Theresa May in her 2016 speech Britain, the great meritocracy. The illusion of upward social mobility that results not ‘from where you were born’ but from ‘your talent and hard work’ is a powerful one (Payne). For students like Aisha the acceptance of a meritocratic discourse makes it hard to recognise the structural inequalities that they are battling against. And if they ‘fail’ they will only have themselves to blame.

Aisha does however recognise competition for graduate jobs, and knows that she will need an edge to enter that market:

I’m planning to keep getting work experience as the course is going on and keep getting work experience every year or continue to get it throughout my degree and then hopefully I’ll probably get err, I might need further training maybe. If I need further training I’ll do that. I’ll get a good job out of it. One I like getting up to in the morning.

As Aisha talks about her ambitions to move into a graduate career, the emphasis on her reliance on her own initiative and motivation are apparent. The neoliberal values of effort, responsibility and being accountable for her own success have been tacitly accepted. Aisha’s comments do not acknowledge how her opportunity structures have been shaped by her gender, socio-economic background or ethnicity. The lack of choice about which university to attend or the need to juggle her identity as a mother with that of being a student is simply accepted. The middle-class students who attend a prestigious institution a short train journey away from Aisha’s house, who do not need to balance their studying with other commitments, are not acknowledged.

The stakes for Aisha achieving a graduate career are high. Like many working class female students, she focuses on the financial stability that her education will bring to her family in the longer term:

My mum…said because obviously she’d had money problems, financial problems herself she was like erm you know I want you to do well for yourself, but I never really listened because I was so young and naïve… However, when I had my own family that’s when I realised, that’s what pushed me to get here.

Aisha and her mum’s unwavering belief in social mobility through education and hard work is palpable in the quote above. The benefit will not only be to herself through the possibility of a fulfilling career, but also to her young family by not having to struggle financially. Aisha’s story tells us that for some women, attending university is a game of ‘snakes and ladders’ requiring a mixture of tenacity, pragmatism, hope and luck. However, for young, working class mothers like Aisha, working harder and being ‘brighter’ is the only way to turn the rhetoric of a meritocracy into a reality.

[1] Abrahams, J. (2017) ‘Honourable mobility or shameless entitlement? Habitus and graduate employment’, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38 (5), pp. 625 – 640.
[2] Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. J. D. (1992/2007) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology, Cambridge: Polity Press, p31.
[3] Bathmaker, A-M., Ingram, N., Abrahams, J., Hoare, A., Waller, R. and Bradley, H. (2016) Higher Education, Social Class and Social Mobility: The Degree Generation, London: Palgrave Macmillan.
[4] Finn, K. (2017) ‘Multiple, relational and emotional mobilities: Understanding student mobilities in higher education as more than “staying local” or “going away”’, British Educational Research Journal, 43 (4): 743 – 758.
[5] Skeggs, B. (1997/2002) Formations of Class and Gender, London: Sage.
[6] Reay, D. (2017) Miseducation: Inequality, Education and the Working Classes, Bristol: Policy Press.


Sam Shields is a Lecturer in Education at Newcastle University. She began her career as a primary school teacher. Her research focuses on assessment and feedback, especially students’ experiences of engaging with formative feedback, as well as minority and working-class students’ routes into higher education.