Social inequalities and the journey to postgraduate taught study
: Narratives and navigations of first-generation students in England

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

This research develops new understandings about the intersection between social inequalities and progression into postgraduate taught (PGT) education. Whilst undergraduate study has received substantial focus in the HE literature and from institutional praxis, M-level education has rarely attracted the same attention, despite its growing prominence in UK and international HE landscapes. Redressing this imbalance is a pressing endeavour, given the interconnected contexts of increasing massification, stratification and neoliberalisation, alongside the introduction of the Master’s loan. To achieve this, the research analyses life story interviews and workshops with UK-domiciled Master’s students in England, all of whom were part of the first generation in their family to attend university. Synthesising this data, the research explores the following important questions:
1. How do students navigate their trajectories into PGT study?
2. How do students’ subjectivities, resources and life experiences inform and shape their PGT journeys and navigations of social inequalities?
Fieldwork involved biographical-narrative interviews with 41 Master’s students at four universities in England, taking place in two co-located pairs of institutions, one in the North and one in the South. Each pair included one ‘high-status’ and one ‘lower-status’ university. Students came from a range of social science, natural science, arts and humanities disciplines and ranged in age from their early twenties up to their seventies. Following initial analysis of interview data, four workshops were held (one in each university) with nine interviewees. Data was subsequently analysed using a framework which connected feminist scholarship, poststructuralism and Bourdieusian theorisations including insights from researchers who work within, beyond and against Bourdieu’s schemas. This theoretical assemblage facilitated a deep focus on relative and discursive power, multiple and nuanced lived experiences and the indefinite, ongoing and hybridised nature of the social realm.
The research makes a number of analytical and empirical contributions. Firstly, it argues that to better understanding HE trajectories, the framing of non-linear journeys is productive and powerful. Speaking against approaches which focus on student decision-making or silo transitions into separate stages, the motif of the journey recognises people’s learning navigations as interconnected, personal, contextual and deeply embedded in the historical and socio-political conditions through which they unfurl. Secondly, the research highlights the importance of happenstance and serendipity, a critical third space between and connecting structure and agency. Although these ‘small moments’ are often hard to see and may fall outside of the current scope of HE support and practice, these can be some of the most significant turning points in people’s lives. Finally, the research evidences how a number of familiar dynamics which we know shape patterns of undergraduate participation – such as students’ capitals, geographical (im)mobility, prior educational experiences, finance, labour market precarity, ‘fitting in’ and identity constructions – extend to and remain salient for PGT study. However, they can sometimes become more obfuscated or take on new formations. This latter insight builds on the existing evidence base about undergraduate inequalities, posing significant questions for the academy going forward.
Date of Award2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Sussex
SponsorsEconomic and Social Research Institute
SupervisorTamsin Hinton-Smith (Supervisor) & Louise Gazeley (Supervisor)

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