Research into the experiences of low socio-economic status (SES) and non-traditional students tends to focus on access to education, aspirations and retention rates whilst little attention is paid to their actual lived experiences. Over the course of one semester, four female students who had enrolled in the University of Western Australia (UWA) via alternative entry schemes were interviewed. Through these conversations, something of the complex, difficult and rewarding experiences of these students emerged. The aim of the research to reinstate the students’ voice as the central focus helped to displace dominant discourses that naturalise and assign categories of disadvantage in order that a more meaningful discussion of equality in education may take place.
Introduction It is Wednesday and after hours in the Arts library on campus. The top floor is virtually empty except for three students in the coloured blazer of a nearby private school. They are being coached on how to use the library resources by a young tutor, perhaps a university student, and helped with their homework. She walks back and forth addressing eager, studious questions: how to reference an editor? Where to find an article in an online database? How to print out and photocopy on the university computers? Earlier in the day I had attended an obligatory workshop on how to write a curriculum vitae. ‘You can be the most knowledgeable person in the world but it means nothing if you don’t know how to come across…you’ve got to talk in their language’ our lecturer told us. The main thing is to ‘show you know what words to use’. In effect he was talking about cultural capital: those things you are not actually taught, that you must pick up or absorb – or not. It is precisely this tailoring in an education setting that will give some a ‘feel for the game’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 81, in Schirato & Webb 2003, p.541) over others. The students I’m listening to in the library have the cultural capital required of them, something that others in a more diverse student population may never have or feel.
With the exception of alternative pathways open to mature-age, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander students, entry into UWA for low SES students has been limited to those who are able to fulfill the high cut-off entry scores, or the various scholarships based on academic achievement. In this way, Trevor Gale (2010,p.5) writes, provision for low SES students weighs heavily on meritocratic principles whereby recipients are selected as they are deemed deserving: ‘deserving because, except for their lack of finances, socially and culturally they look like “us”’. In order to meet enrolment targets by 2020, however, alternative pathways may be negotiated for low SES students at UWA with the implication that students from more diverse backgrounds will also be included.
So what does it feel like to be so heavily in the minority? Whilst research and programs are conducted to ensure enrolment numbers, what do we know about the possible experiences of these students once they are here? Likewise, whilst much has been acknowledged in terms of their needs through the provisioning of programs for literacy and study skills, what about their cultural capital? What knowledge and experiences do they bring with them (Gale, 2010)? Discourses surrounding these provisions often only enforce the concept that universities are there to amend ‘deficits’ (Mills & Gale, 2002: 1) in equity student knowledge, that to be righted there must be a wrong, enforcing the legitimacy of dominant university culture, and the redundancy of their own (Gale & Mills, 2002; Pearce, Down & Moore, 2008). Low SES student experiences need to be explored, as Mills and Gale (2002) affirm, as valuable in their own right and not for their degree of similarity and assimilation.
Literature Review Pearce, Down, and Moore (2008), and Munns, Nanlohy, and Thomas (2000), explore Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus, and within this, student responses to university life – their sense of self, purpose, and agency. Gale (2010: 11) likewise stresses the importance of research into equity groups emphasising the need to look further than mere ‘presence’: to an engagement with what it might mean to be from one of these groups and how universities interact with them. Within the parameters that equity students find themselves, how do they respond: do they, for example, adjust or conform in some ways or resist in others? These questions, whilst acknowledging structural constraints, can reinstate student agency - by looking beyond, and challenging, notions such as the ‘deficit’ (Gale 2010) paradigm or, as Pearce, Down, and Moore (2008) write, that these students need to or will endeavor to assimilate into dominant university culture given the chance.
Green and Webb (1997) have looked specifically at the ways students entering university via alternative pathways construct their identities, their reasons for entering university, as well as their past schooling experiences, shedding light on these constantly shifting dynamics in which the student situates himself/herself. Schuetze and Slowey (2002) examine some of the issues faced by ‘non-traditional’ students, emphasising that access is only half of the picture, and does not instantly dissolve the practice of social selection that still occurs in higher education today. In a similar vein, Reay, Ball, and David (2002) look at mature-age students in inner London, in particular single working class mothers, documenting the difficulties they face and how many fail to complete their degree. Theirs is also a call for more to be done for this group than mere access opportunities. Willis in his celebrated work ‘Learning to Labour’ (1977) examines the interaction of class and education, and the ways that working class boys resist and reject the values and authority of education institutions. Similarly, Munns and McFadden (2000) use resistance theory to explore the experiences of students in primary and high-school to look at the factors involved in how they view educational institutions and their choices to engage in or reject tertiary education. Ross and Gray (2005: 103) examined what they term ‘second-chance education’, writing that the decision to enroll in higher education by non-school leavers is ‘a personal act of agency through which young people struggle to reclaim successful personal and educational identities amidst the constraints and hazards in their daily lives’. The next section outlines the method that was used to explore similar experiences amongst four students at UWA.
Methodology The first issue this study encountered was the selection of participants from low socio-economic backgrounds. After considering the criteria for acceptance into some of the alternative pathways of entry into UWA, a parallel emerged between the following criteria and that which might be thought to characterise low socio-economic status: things such as ‘attending a school where very few students in Year 11 and 12 are interested in tertiary education', 'lack of a supportive study environment in your family home', or 'needing to engage in excessive part-time employment to help supplement your family's income' (University of Western Australia 2010, Special Entry). Thus, whilst the focus of this study is on alternative pathways, the participants involved may be thought of as students of low socio-economic status. A survey was sent out to all students who had entered through an alternative entry scheme with an option to participate in a future interview. Four students – Mia, Anna, Sally and Paige - were interviewed one-on-one, with feedback offered via written correspondence later in the semester. Throughout the interviewing process it became clear that my position as a student and not merely as a researcher had a considerable impact on how participants interacted and responded to questions. Interviews were of a reciprocal nature, more like conversations in which we each offered our own experiences as a way of making sense of them. Whilst it would have been preferable to meet frequently, study loads, assignments, exams, and outside pressures made it all too difficult to find the time for more than one interview. The data was recorded and then transcribed, and analysed according to themes.
Mia is an Indigenous student who grew up in rural Western Australia. She enrolled in the Aboriginal Orientation Course, a bridging course allowing her entry into and preparation for an undergraduate arts degree. She is a mature-age student and is in her third and final year of study. Anna is a mature-age student who grew up in Perth and entered UWA via the Special Tertiary Admissions Test (STAT). She is in her second year of study. Sally is an Indigenous student who grew up in rural Western Australia. The Pre-Law bridging course for Indigenous students enabled her to commence her degree in law in which she is currently completing her third year. Paige completed high-school in Perth and sat the STAT some years later as a mature-age student. She is in her first year of study. Our conversations concentrated on how they managed their transitions to university socially, financially and academically in their first year; on past schooling experiences and reasons for attending university; on how they situate or perceive themselves amongst staff and other students on campus and how they interact with or react to dominant university culture.
The Card that is Given to You: circumstance and choice We began our conversations by talking about how it was that Mia, Sally, Anna, and Paige came to decide to enroll in university, about their choice of university and their past schooling experiences. Mia recalled:
I was in year seven and our teacher had said “oh what’s everyone want to be” and…I had such big dreams, and everyone was like, “I want to be a pilot, I wanna do this, I wanna do that”. And I really wanted to be a doctor…and this teacher turned around and said “Look, they’re really good dreams guys, but no one in this class is going to be any of those things”. And, you know…it was just awful. And from that day on I was like “nup, I’m never going to be a doctor”.
Anna told me ‘I always figured I’d go [to university] eventually…I’d always done very well in school up until about year twelve and then for some reason I just sort of froze’. As Mia remarks ‘I was good at school! I was good at school and I didn’t get bad grades or anything…just life circumstances. Things happen…I fell pregnant at sixteen, had my son at seventeen, so dropped out and didn’t finish school’. Importantly, it is the money she receives as a single mother that helps her out financially: ‘although people say, “well, having a baby at 17 probably wasn’t the best”, having my son was the best because it saved me, because it gave me money…and I know there’s a stigma attached with single parents and stuff like that – it wasn’t my choice to be as single parent, but that’s what saved me’. With low marks from her final high school examination, Paige began administration work as soon as she finished high school, saying that even if she had received good marks, she wouldn’t have known what to study or where. Just as she considered applying, she said, ‘I had my son, so that put a stop to everything’. She has waited until he has turned two in order to commence part-time study.
Reay (1998: 528) asserts that discourses surrounding ‘choice’ of education still imply a value-free, rational process, masking the ‘real issues of social injustice which permeate the process and remain entrenched in the system’. Mia’s choice to attend UWA was made because an old friend of the family was working in administration in the School of Indigenous Studies. In the first place, however, information on the possibility of attending university via the Aboriginal Orientation Course happened quite by chance. ‘My sister…saw it advertised at ALS [Aboriginal Legal Services] and at the time she was going through a custody battle. And so she was attending to see her lawyer and so…there was a brochure up on the notice board, and that’s how she got into it’. Reay (1998) noted the process of choosing a university by working class students as being a random and happening by chance, as opposed to upper and middle class students, who, in the many years leading up to the transition to university, spend much time consulting with family members, teachers and universities to inform their choices. Likewise, choice of what to actually study seems to happen by chance. When I ask how they chose what to major in, Mia says ‘I just sort of fell into it’. She had no previous knowledge of what constituted the various disciplines, and it was thanks to the orientation course, and the component called FUS [Foundation of University Study] that she was given the opportunity to sample a unit from every discipline in order to choose. For Paige, it was some time between applying and being in a position to actually enroll and study. She recalls ‘I remember putting in for arts just because it looked like it would match my grades I was maybe going to get and not even knowing what you did in an arts degree’. Even now, with no one to consult on her choice she comments ‘it’s intimidating because…how do you pick a major? And what if you spend four years on a major and then find that, despite all the propaganda, it’s actually useless?’ Sally was completely unaware of the possibility of entering university through the Pre-Law bridging course. She achieved an incredibly high score from her TEE in her high-school in Esperence, but not enough for the high cut-off score of 97 to enter into law. She related to me that her grades would have been better were it not for illness in her last year of high-school. She rang administration at UWA to ask if there could be some way of achieving special consideration. Only toward the end of the conversation did she say she was Indigenous and she was put in touch with the School of Indigenous Studies.
The Prestige Factor: if you don’t have a degree people won’t respect you Anna tells me of the moment that pushed her to enroll: ‘a woman I work with, Sharon, she’s in her, sort of, early fifties, she went to Durham which is apparently, like, right underneath Cambridge and Oxford…she sort of said what my mother had always said, that, like, “oh if you don’t have a degree people won’t respect you”. It never really occurred to me before that people might think I was not very clever or something’. Three of the students emphasised several times that it was the ‘prestige factor’ of UWA, as Anna worded it, that informed their choice of university. ‘I mean, just the fact that it’s the hardest to get into has to say something’ Paige tells me. Her wish was to study law, which she would be able to study at other universities in Perth via the STAT, but not at UWA. She settled for studying arts instead in order to attend UWA: ‘nobody is as much of a uni snob as I am. Like, other people are quite happy to go to other universities depending on what suits them’. When Anna didn’t get the good grades she wanted in her TEE, omitting her from the possibility of entering UWA, she says ‘being a sort of huge snob I was like, “oh well. I’m not going to uni at all in that case”’. For Sally her choice was always to attend UWA, saying ‘it was definitely the reputation’.
Capital & Habitus: ways of thinking, ways of being Having the feel for the game is . . . to master in a practical way the future of the game, is to have a sense of the history of the game. While the bad player is off tempo, always too early or too late, the good player is the one who anticipates, who is ahead of the game.
(Bourdieu & Wacquant in Schirato & Webb 2003 p.541)
Paige says of her tutorial experiences ‘my history tutor is a Dr and he gives the lectures too…and he is very intimidating. I don’t like to open my mouth because I sense that he’s thinking “god you’re an idiot”’. Mia says ‘there’s no way that I could talk to some of my lecturers or even approach them’. This feeling extends to being a mature-age student, that being older they feel they should know more: ‘there’s a Study Skills lady and she probably just looks really young for her age’ Paige tells me, ‘but she doesn’t seem that much older than me to be a Dr. And I just think “what have I been doing with myself and the last 10 years of my life?”’. When I ask Anna why she doesn’t approach her teachers when she needs help, she replies, ‘I think it’s more, sort of, that I don’t want to admit that I actually need help. ‘Cos I’m afraid of bothering them, too, because they all seem really important’. Despite being older, Paige says of other students in her classes that ‘they’ve just come straight from school obviously with great marks and they probably get better essay results than I am. So it’s a bit intimidating’.
I got a sense for some of the bodily unease students felt in occupying the physical space of the university campus. Sally said there was ‘no way’ she would sit in the law library to study, grateful for the study spaces at the School of Indigenous Studies. Mia told me ‘I hate being on the campus, like, I don’t feel like I fit in at all. So, I’m glad when I don’t have to be there. I look at these people and I have nothing in common with them, they’re just from a totally different planet’. Paige speaks of the awkwardness of always being lost - ‘I still know I’m going the wrong way but I just keep going’ – and of not having anyone to sit with at lunch so delaying lunch but feeling hungry and unable to study.
Symbolic Violence: it’s all in your head Of all forms of “hidden persuasion”, the most implacable is the one exerted, quite simply, by the order of things (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 168). A running theme throughout all of the interviews is a struggle to define, and untangle, exactly what it is that makes these students feel the way they do. Often they simply hold themselves responsible: as Paige states in relation to a teacher whom she felt looked down on her, ‘it’s probably all just in my head’. This invisibility of structured inequality is perhaps best defined as symbolic violence. The experiences of both Mia and Sally as the only Indigenous students in classroom settings point towards the often harrowing effects of such violence. In speaking of student discussions during tutorials, Mia says ‘some of the things that come out…I mean, it’s quite exhausting. A couple of semesters ago I was at the end of my tether where I just looked so exhausted.’ Sally was less forceful on this point, wanting to allow the possibility that some student discussions may be due to ‘genuine misunderstandings’ because, she supposes, they’ve ‘never had that interaction with Indigenous people before’. Uncomfortably, she concedes ‘…but, you know, then it can progress to downright racism’. It is evident that even the ‘genuine misunderstandings’ are taken on by Sally who must correct these, filling in the gaps for the other students, and bearing the brunt of their, possibly, first ‘interaction’ with an Indigenous person. Mia articulates this situation well by saying ‘it’s my education as well and I feel like I’m having to educate people sometimes, you know?’ Kessaris (2006: 355) calls this ‘unconstrained Mununga [White people] talk’ in relation to her own experience as a teacher in tertiary education. ‘The intensity of the students’ comments about Indigenous people felt like my identity had been repeatedly beaten with a baseball bat’ she writes, a cumulative experience that led her to take unpaid leave to recover. This is perhaps the most vivid illustration of another aspect of symbolic violence (Bourdieu & Wacquant 2004: 272) in which agents are coopted into ‘contributing to producing the efficacy of that which determines them insofar as they structure what determines them’. Mia tells me ‘I’m a strong person, I’m a lot older and had a very hard time, and there were times when I wanted to drop out and never return. I mean it got so bad that I took a semester off…you’re not just poor, you’re black and poor and it’s such a shit way to feel all the time’. Sally, on the other hand, believes that no one is aware of her indigeneity and does not want to reveal it to her classmates. ‘I’m one of those people, I suppose, that doesn’t say anything…only because then they express, like, their actual views and are more willing to listen to your alternative view if they think it’s just coming from the same platform as theirs. Whereas if it’s because you’re Indigenous then you’re already on the outside and they’re less willing to listen because it’s more of a bias, I suppose’. When I ask if the lecturer or the tutor ever intervenes in these discussions, Sally says ‘they don’t seem to really engage with it at all’. The liberty that students feel in classrooms in their ‘unconstrained’ talk is to a large extent entrenched in the curriculums of specific discplines in which indigeneity is up for discussion. Sally confirms this by saying that it’s just ‘part of the content…in particular in criminal law and criminology’. Mia compares her experiences as a student of political sciences and Anthropology to those of engineering students who can avoid such discussions.
The Value of Life Experience Ross and Gray (2005: 103) state that the decision to enroll in higher education by non school-leavers is ‘a personal act of agency through which young people struggle to reclaim successful personal and educational identifies amidst the constraints and hazards in their daily lives’. Pearce, Down, and Moore (2008) challenge the assumption that students need to or will endeavor to assimilate into dominant university culture given the chance. Much of the discourse on access to education focuses on the missed opportunity of students who drop out of high school, fail their completion certificates, or simply just don’t enroll in higher education. Their aspirations need to be raised, we are told. However, as Sellar (2010: 3) writes:
‘value judgments that contrast ‘high’ and ‘low’ aspirations rest on an assumption that the ‘good life’ (i.e. what counts as a desirable and dignified life) is relatively common for all people. However, an equitable society is arguably one in which this ideal of the ‘good life’ is open to contest and debate, and in which diverse versions of the ‘good life’ are valued and able to be pursued’.
Whilst it may be that participants would have liked to have the opportunity to attend university as a school leaver, it is also true that they value their experiences as older students with more life experience. Mia says ‘it would be a hell of a lot easier [to be a school leaver]…I’d have finished my degree and probably be earning money right now’. But nevertheless ‘I appreciate the education I get a lot more now. I have a thirst, a willingness, an eagerness, some of the things that some of the other students don’t have I find. It’s easy to listen to something and then reverberate what you’ve heard and just spew it back out to your lecturer because you know that’s what they want to hear, but to actually understand that idea, critique it, process that and utilise that…’. Anna says ‘I mean I definitely feel that I’ve got a lot more focus…being in classes with 17 year olds - they’re just there because their mother wants them to be there and they don’t know what they want to do and stuff they never do the readings or they gossip…I’ve just had more time to read so many more books’.
Ambition: aiming quite high for yourself and being the change Mia says of her consideration to attend university in order to benefit her son: ‘I looked at him and thought “ I need a better life for him…I don’t want him to be getting food vouchers from the Salvation Army”’. All four students demonstrate a hard-work ethic in which they have high expectations of themselves, feel that others do too, and experience a great deal of anxiety about getting good grades. When I ask what the difficult things about being at university are for Anna, she says it’s ‘the pressure to do well because I’ve decided I want to pursue academia. So if there are too many assignments at once I tend to freeze and not really know what to do. I mean, I’m aiming quite high for myself, for academia’. Paige says of her first marked assignment so far ‘I got 67% and it’s not good enough’. Mia says ‘I feel like I have to always be successful and so, like, when I get a bad grade I’m in tears, I’m absolutely in tears… a credit is average. Anyone can get a credit. I don’t want to be just average’.
Significantly, all four students have ‘big’ aspirations – Mia, Sally, and Paige in particular wish to pursue work involved in social justice. Sally would like to work for the Aboriginal Legal Service, Mia would like to work in Indigenous Affairs in some capacity, and Paige would like to work in the Department of Child Protection, in social work, Indigenous affairs, or with a non-government organisation. Anna envisages a career in which she can freely immerse herself in her lifelong passion for literature. Mia says ‘I know it’s cliché, and people always say it, but “be the change you want to see”. Indigenous people have become passive consumers, do you know what I mean? Kind of just accept that that’s the way it is, and for a long time I did too. I was like “things are never going to get better”, you know, “this is just my life, this is the card I was given”. Now that I’m back at uni and now that my sister’s had her babies…I just think… I want it to benefit these kids’. They all indicate that their aspirations are different from most other students. Sally says her interest in human rights is very much at odds with law students pursuing commercial law because it ‘makes the most money’. She talks of people she has worked with in volunteer positions in the community, however, that inspired her to follow a similar path, stating that they seemed ‘a lot happier than commercial lawyers do years down the track’.
Conclusion It is not a given that all students aspire or should aspire to attend university as school-leavers and this collection of thoughts and experiences contests this accepted version of higher education attendance. The experiences of these students demonstrate the difficulties they face but despite this, their sense of it as a rewarding experience. When I ask Anna what she likes about being at university she answers ‘being challenged mentally’. Being a student is a fulfillment where formerly she pursued these interests on the sly during work hours: ‘I used to joke when I worked in a shop where nobody ever came in that I was keeping my brain sharp by doing crosswords and reading Dostoyevsky while I was basically dusting shelves’. Sally spoke of being excited to discover she was so ‘engaged’ with her law studies, Mia of having ‘a thirst, a willingness, an eagerness’ for hers. Paige sums up ‘I like what I learn. I don’t like the methods required to learn it, I don’t like all the reading, but once I’ve acquired all the information I really like it’. For such ‘non-traditional’ students, everyday interactions on campus must be constantly negotiated on financial, academic, emotional and physical levels in order to forge a space for their studies. As Mia says ‘you know, knowledge is power and once you know something you can speak and you are a bit more articulate’. Students transform their university experiences into tools of empowerment and as a means through which they might imagine and effect positive contributions in areas where they would like to see social and personal change beyond their graduation.
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