Jessie and Rachel are looking forward to giving a paper based on some initial findings from the project at the BSA annual conference at the start of April. They will draw on their analysis of English policy documents (from government, staff and student unions and employers’ organisations) and nine focus groups with English undergraduates (see abstract below). This forms part of a symposium we have organised on ‘Constructing the higher education student and graduate’.
The choices and aspirations of higher education students in England
Within a climate of increased university tuition fees, students have arguably become increasingly constructed as ‘consumers’. For example, in England, the recent radical changes to HE funding are predicated upon the assumption that prospective students will: see a degree as a private investment (rather than a public good); be prepared to accumulate significant debt in order to acquire it; and actively ‘shop around’, comparing institutions and courses to secure the ‘best’ possible education (BIS, 2011). However the extent to which contemporary students understand their role within the institution and how this compares to policy constructions is yet to be fully explored. This paper draws upon early data collected as part of the five year European Research Council-funded ‘Eurostudents’ project to explore the extent to which there is congruence between these constructions in policy and amongst students themselves. We focus in particular on constructions and narratives of ‘choice’ and ‘aspiration’ of higher education students in England. Firstly, we analyse the ways in which decision-making processes are constructed in contemporary policy documents, including the white paper Success as a Knowledge Economy: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice (DBIS, 2016), which provides the basis for the Higher Education Bill currently passing through parliament. Secondly, we consider the extent to which these constructions are shared by students themselves, using data from focus groups in a diverse sample of higher education institutions. We explore whether students contest these constructions and/or offer their own alternatives. A key aspect of our analysis – across both the policy documents and focus groups – is the extent to which differences between students (and associated structural inequalities) are acknowledged and addressed.