Experiencing the barriers:
non-traditional students entering
The paper describes part of an ongoing study of the experiences of 32 mature, `non-traditional’
students as they make the transition to higher education. The paper draws on the stories of
three of the participants to highlight some of the ® nancial and institutional barriers experienced
by mature minority ethnic students. It points to the need f or institutional change if non-
traditional students are to thrive within a system that purports to be directed towards widening
participation. The study reveals the non-traditional student as a frustrated participant in an
unresponsive institutional context and questions the tendency to problematize students
from non-traditional backgrounds, rather than the educational institutions responsible for
their progress This paper is based on research carried out with adults involved in a community-
based, ¯ exible access to higher education project in an inner-city area of the UK. The study
involved the development of a participatory research design to encourage mature students to
speak directly to an academic audience and to re¯ ect on their experiences as they made the
decision to aim for higher education entry, and as they entered a variety of part-time and f ull-
time higher educational establishments and courses.
Keywords: access, higher education, participation, non-traditional students
A number of factors have combined to stimulate the growth in numbers of mature ® rst-time
entrants to higher education in the UK (Parry, 199 5; W atson and Taylor, 1998). The decreasing
birth rate in the late 1970s forced both government and educational institutions to look at other
ways of maintaining recruitment. A mixture of economic necessity and social justice arguments
have been advanced to support a change in government attitude toward adult entry to higher
education. A rise in adult unemployment and a massive restructuring of the industrial sector
Marion Bowl is Project Manager for Birmingham REACHOUT.
Research Papers in Education 16(2) 2001, pp. 141± 160
were accompanied by exhortations to workers to reskill themselves for future employment, and
the requirement for education and training to respond to the demands of the economy has
become a clarion call of governments from the mid-1970s (Callaghan, 1976) to the present time
(DfEE, 1998). At the same time, a rguments on social justice grounds have been made on behalf
of those underrepresented in higher education. As a result, access courses have been developed
within further education colleges, targeted towards people labelled `disadvantaged’ in terms of
their early education (Zol® qar, 1995), and an increasing number of students with characteristics
designated `non-traditional’ ± over 21 years of age, female and minority ethnic ± have entered
higher education. However, disparities remain in the proportion of higher education entrants
from the most deprived socio-economic backgrounds (NCIHE, 1997; p.103).
Since Labour’s election in 1997, a number of government-sponsored reports and consultative
documents have considered how access to higher education can be widened to include groups
identified as underrepresented and how a system of mass higher education can be created
(The Dearing Report: NCIHE, 1997; The Kennedy Report: FEFC, 1997; The Fryer Report:
NAGCELI, 1998; The Learning Age: DfEE, 1998). Currently, concern is focussed upon the
underrepresentation of people with disabilities, people from working-class backgrounds and
poorer localities, Bangladeshi women and African-Caribbean men (DfEE, 1998; Ch. 5).
The REACHOUT Project on which this report is based, set up in 199 6 and sponsored
by a government grant, was aimed at increasing levels of entry to full- and part-time higher
education. Its focus was an inner-city area where rates of entry to higher education were
around 50 per cent of the average for the city as a whole. Being appointed both development
worker and researcher for the Pro ject, I worked alongside a group of non-traditional entrants
to higher education over a sustained period of time and was able to explore, from their
standpoint, their progress towards higher education and the ways institutions responded to
Much of the research on adult participation in education (McGivney, 1990; Woodley, 1987)
has been conducted from an institutional perspective, and has examined the institutional and
dispositional factors which combine to deter adults from ret urning to education. A number of
recent studies, carried out by researchers based in higher education institutions (Tett, 1999;
Macdonald and Stratta, 1998; Merrill, 1999; Preece, 2000) have explored the perspectives o f
those taking part in particular institution or community based initiatives aimed at non-traditional
students. Macdonald and Stratta and Preece both conclude that a n in crease in access needs to
be accompanied by a change in the culture of high er education institutions and that such a
change would bene® t mature and non-mature students alike.
Susan Weil (1986, 1989) examined the impact of informal learning on non-traditional
students’ expectations and experiences of higher education entry. She described the disjunction
between the home and early schooling experiences of re search participants and how this
disjunction may also be felt by those moving into higher education. According to her, entering
higher education can be a shock, accompanied by a sense of personal powerlessness. Evidence
from other research with non-traditional students, indicates that higher education is experienced
in different ways than by standard, 18 year-old entrants (Macdonald and Stratta, 1998; Pascall
and Cox, 1993). It is seen initially, at any rate, as a struggle for personal, academic, ® nancial
and emotional survival.
142 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
Susan Weil’ s research concentrated mainly on th e experiences of white adults retu rning
to study. Until recently, students of African-Caribbean and South Asian origin have been
underrepresented within higher education and thus in research on higher education entry.
Autobiographical accounts (for example, Cunningham-Blake, 1995) indicate that university
can be traumatic and isolating in ways not experienced by white working-class students. Eva
Stina Lyon (1993) has described the way in which research on race, ethnicity and education
has tended to focus on perceived de® cits or problems of learners themselves, rather than on
institutional racism, and how it affects black students’ progress.
The aim of this study was to explore the impact of the transition to mainstream higher
education from the point of view of the participants themselves; to move away from institutional
perspectives and to gain an insight into the experiences of learners entering a range of full- and
part-time higher education courses. It sought to examine how the institutional rhetoric of `mass
higher education’ was experienced in practice by non-traditional students ± primarily women
from working-class and minority ethnic backgrounds.
The research process was informed by the belief that mature students’ family lives and concerns
are not merely the background against which their educational careers develo p, but are integral
to their experience of higher education study. It w as important th at the research positioned itself
alongside the students and did not assume that institutions and courses were unproblematic.
Further, it was important that the res earch process and results be accessible to the research
participants, as well as policy makers. I aimed at a methodology which was critical (Giroux,
1986; Troyna, 1994), illuminative, and which attempted to involve the research participants
in contributing to and commenting on the process of the research. In doing so, I was in¯ uenced
by fem inist methodology (Lather, 1991; Roberts, 1981), action research (Elliott, 1991) and
critical educational research (Carr and Kemmis, 1986).
The study told a story, which was mainly, but not entirely about women. It also became a
story which was mainly about black women ± black British women, black Caribbean women,
black African women, Indian women, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. Feminist methodology
recognizes that women have been systematically disadvantaged by educational and occupational
structures. They experience barriers which relate to their gender position ± as mothers,
frequently as lone carers and as workers directed towards particular occupational roles with
poor wage and career structures. There is a danger, in attempting to research working-class,
black and women’s experiences that the participant becomes `the problem’ to be researched,
rather than the structures within which racism and sexism are perpetuated. I wanted to work
in a way which enabled participants to speak directly and to re¯ ect on their own experience,
rather than concentrating on institutional interpretations of non-traditional students’ experience.
The study was based on practice. It engaged participants in the research proces s in order to
gain a deeper understanding of the issues affecting them. As such, it does not make claims
to generalizability. However, it does claim to bring alive the experiences of non-traditional
students, and to provide a rich account that may contribute to change.
Non-traditional students entering higber education 143
It was important from my methodological perspective that the research encouraged the
involvement of participants in data collection, theory building a nd disseminating the research
® ndings. This meant that research methods evolved, within the general framework above, and
were not prescribed in detail in advance. Data analysis was ongoing; themes emerged from the
data, rather than being imposed upon them.
Action research ( (Elliott, 1991; p. 71) involves cycles of activity. My research design involved
a series of stages which increased participants’ involvement, leading to the presentation of their
views directly to academics and educational policy-makers. The `reconnaissance phase’ of the
study, which lasted for most of the ® rst year, involved attempting to identify themes. Data
collection was based on my diary re¯ ections and on detailed written recordings of informal
conversations. From this preliminary phase, a number of data collection methods evolved.
I recorded discussions in two diaries ± a report of daily encounters and a weekly personal
reflection on the research questions emerging. During the initial phase, I made it clear to
participants that I was conducting research on the experiences of mature students.
To build a picture of the educational histories of participants I carried out initial interviews with
seventeen students. The interviews explored participants’ experiences of school and college,
the advice and guidance they had received on their possible educational and career options, and
their educational ambitions.
Approximately one year later, I conducted a further 12 interviews with participants who had
been involved with the project for more than 12 months and who had the clear aim of moving
towards higher education. Nine of those interviewed had by this time entered higher education.
The focus for this round of interviews was discussion of participants’ perceptions of their
progress. I also began to seek participants’ help in other ways, including commenting on and
amending interview transcripts and discussing ways in which we could bring to a public forum
the issues which they had raised as obstacles to their educational progress.
The collectivisation of women’s experience is not only a means of getting more and more
diversi® ed information, but it also helps women overcome their structural isolation in their
families and to understand that their individual sufferings have social causes. (Mies, 1983;
In the ® rst stages of data collection I aimed to develop my understanding of issues in the ® eld
of adult access, build awareness o f the research among potential participants a nd explore ways
in which they might be prepared to be involved in th e research process. During our discussions,
144 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
it became clear that a number of participants were concerned about inadequate funding, lack
of childcare, difficulties with the benefits system and the unresponsiveness of educational
institutions to the issues faced by adult students with childcare responsibilities. Some talked of
the alienation they felt from the ethos of higher education institutions, and a sense of isolation,
that they felt other students did not share.
It seemed that the organization of group activities around these issues might be a way in
which a number of objectives could be met. Participants’ involvement in collaborative activity
± a conference aimed at other students, academics and policy makers ± could help to articulate
shared concerns and break down isolation. It might also in crease the participants’ con® dence
to challenge the status quo without risking further isolation. In this sense, there was a possibility
of conducting research, which could claim to be emancipatory (Lather, 1991).
I asked those participants who had pr eviously taken part in individual interviews and
who had moved on to higher education, whether they would be prepared to participate
in follow-up activities. I sought their involvement in planning and contributing to a conference.
Thirteen students agreed to take part. Nine agreed to contribute directly as conference speakers.
Preparation for the conference involved four group sessions, facilitated by myself and a
colleague. The aims of these sessions were to help participants develop public speaking skills
and to enable me to collect further data on their experiences of higher education through our
The Students Speak Conference took place in December 1998. It was based on a report
of the preliminary research ® ndings and the verbal contributions of myself and nine women
students from non-traditional backgrounds. We acted as keynote speakers, each making a brief
contribution from our own perspective, on the issue of mature students’ access to higher edu-
cation. In addition, conference workshops were facilitated by project tutors and co-facilitated
by student participants. The aims of the workshops were to promote discussion between
students, academics and policy-makers and to make positive proposals which might improve
the experiences of non-traditional students in higher education. The outcomes of these
discussions were reported to the conference and disseminated by means of a special newsletter
sent to community organizations, politicians and students (Birmingham REACHOUT, 1999).
The research findings reported therefore, have been distilled from personal reflections and
recordings, individual and group interviews, conference workshops and feedback from both
students and education practitioners.
A detailed analysis of the ® ndings is not within the s cope of this paper. H owever, I will attempt
to convey s ome of the emergent themes by focussing on the stories of three participants who
were involved in the REACHOUT project from its earliest stages and who eventually went
on to study at university. Their experiences, while unique in themselves, in different ways
typify those of other participants. Salma, Helen and Ruth each took different routes to higher
education. However, there were similarities in their backgrounds, and in the experiences they
describe in their quest for careers and quali® cations that they felt to be worthwhile.
Non-traditional students entering higber education 145
Salm a’ s
Salma was a successful school student who passed her GCSEs and began her A-levels. However,
she was discouraged from staying on at school by her parents, whom she described as `restrictive’ :
We didn’ t have any books at home or anything. There was no back-up, because my parents
aren’t educated, and I was the eldest. So there was no back-up or anything. So I never
thought I could go into higher education and become something.
Salma married and had two children but her marriage broke down and she was left to fend fo r
them single-handed. With few quali® cations and no work experience, she realized that she
would have to do an access course if she was go ing to make progress. She was unable to attend
college as there w ere no childcare facilities available. Sh e undertook a ¯ exible access course with
REACHOUT, which enabled her to study from home when the children were in bed. She
completed it successfully within six months and gained a place to study Social Policy at
Brookdale University ± a Russell Group University in her home town. As soon as she arrived
at university, however, Salma keenly felt the difference between herself and other students:
We went into the hall. I couldn’t really see any mature students anywhere, and there were
hardly any ethnic minorities. I just felt that they were all young and middle class really. . . .
If you’re not white and middle class, you’re not accepted. There’ s nothing overt, you just
Her ethnicity, her poverty and her age set her apart. Salma’s ® nancial and personal situation
was very dif® cult. By the end of her ® rst term at university, Salma was destitute and extremely
confused about her ® nancial entitlements. She had been led to understand that, as a s ingle
parent, she could continue to claim Income Support while studying full-time for a degree.
However, she was then told that she would be liable for full payment of fees if she did this.
I have to claim a loan because my tuition fees will have to be paid. The thing is, because I’ m
a single parent, I’ m therefore eligible to claim Income Support. But I still h ave to get a loan
. . . but the thing is, I have to get my Housing Bene® t paid. I don’t know how that is going
to be affected by the grant. I’ve talked to Social Security, but they haven’t been much help
. . . I don’t think that many people go to university if they are on Social Security!
At the same time, Salma was being threatened with exclusion from the university because she
had not paid her fees. She approached her tutor for help:
When I went to talk to my tutor about my grant thing, he said: Oh well, you’d better get
that cleared up, because [Brookvale] don’t hang around waiting for people to pay their
tuition fees. They’re going to come after you.
During the Christmas vacation Salma found herself with no money coming in, apart from
Child Bene® t. She was struggling for survival and felt unsupported in her struggle:
I don’t know if other universities are different. I’ve got no knowledge of that. There’s
certainly no back-up, no support. And they sort of make it clear you’re not going to get any.
So there’s no use asking. That’s the impression I get.
146 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
By the beginning of her second year, Salma began to feel more in control of the situation. She
had developed the skill of reading only what she needed to read to complete assignments. She
had borrowed money to buy a computer. Because of her childcare commitments, she could
not spend her free time at u niversity using the computers there. The word processing of essays
was a course requirement of which she had not been made aware in advance. It became another
thing which set her apart from course colleagues. She was the only one who could not afford
There is an underclass of people, those without I.T. knowledge. I.T. is everywhere now;
more people have got computer kno wledge. . . . And there’s a gap between the ha ves an d
She remarked on the irony of her personal poverty in the context of the course she was studying:
They talk about people like me in Social Policy. I feel like I’m living Social Policy, rather
than just reading it from textbooks which other students are.
However, she kept the reality of poverty in her life out of seminar discussions:
I don’t tend to broadcast it around. Because it makes me feel apart from the group, you know
what I mean?
In spite of her many dif® culties, Salma successfully completed her course and gained a second
class degree. Looking back, she felt that she had survived in spite of the university, rather than
because of the support offered to her:
I think perhaps I changed; I don’t think they did! . . . Yes, it’ s: sort it out or you’re going to
be kicked out.
Salma ha s graduated and is looking for work. She is worried about her jo b prospects, even after
gaining a degree:
We talk about sexism, and we talk about racism and it’s been qu ite well documented that if
you’re a mature students you’re less likely to ® nd a job. If you’re a minority, it’ s harder
again; if you’re a woman, it’s harder still. It’s a triple jeopardy thing.
Helen’s early education was in Jamaica, she be gan her schooling in England in the early
seventies, when she was 11 years-old. As an African-Caribbean child in a small Midlands town,
she was one of only 15 black children in a school of over 200 pupils. She felt th at she had come
to Britain with a good educational background. Her strongest memory of school, however, was
of being left at the back of the class, to get on with whatever she felt like doing:
We were put at the back of the class, sort of thing. I remember that distinctly. So I just learnt
what I could. But we weren’t concentrated on like the rest of the kids. And at that time,
you just don’t know how to do anything about it.
Non-traditional students entering higber education 147
Helen gained a strong sense of being different and, in particular, of being treated differently from
other pupils because of differences in language:
Because we speak a patois, you can imagine, they found it hard to understand me, and I found
it hard to understand them until about a year afterwards. . . . They ignored you, because,
you know, they couldn’t communicate. . . . I learnt a few things, but not what I wanted to
learn. They kept you back. If you speak to all the girls that were in my class, they’ll tell you
the same thing. We had to leave town because it was ± oh it was really dif® cult. You could
go to college but, again, you were pushed to the back of the class. You’d really have to excel
to be noticed.
Helen felt that, although her parents were supportive of her educational efforts, they were
unable to provide practical guidance because they were not familiar with the education system;
They didn’ t know. Our family was just saying: you should do better at school, you should
do better. But they didn’t know how you could do better because there weren’t any
guidelines. Do you understand? They couldn’t go to the teacher and say: why isn’t
my daughter achieving like the that white girl? There wasn’t any legislation; there was
Unable to make progress at school because of her sense of marginalization, she also felt
discouraged by her careers advisor:
She pushed us into doing what we didn’t want to do. Was it teaching? Was it that thing that
everyone wanted to be ± an air stewardess? I think I wanted that as well. The glamorous
life. And she said: No, I think it best you go and do something like cooking. . . . And I did
get a job in catering. I left about two months afterwards, I hated it so much. And then y ou
thought: what else can you do? So you hop from job to job until you meet some sort of
man, and then you fall in love, type of thing. Then that’s the end of that.
Helen began a vocational quali® cation, but did not complete it. She married and had the ® rst
of her four children. She decided to return to education after her fourth child was born, her
mother died and she was deserted by her partner:
Then I realized I was on my own. My mum died and I thought: I’m on my own. I can’t go
to anyone and say: can I have some money? And I didn’t have any savings or anything. . . .
I’ ve always wanted to have a career, but I didn’ t quite know what. . . . And I thought: well,
I like people. What can I do that will involve people, so I thought, well, Social Work seems
something I could try.
She did not know where to go for advice, or whether her idea of being a social worker was a
realistic one. By chance, she met the wife of the local vicar at her child’ s playgroup:
She said, why don’t you try REACHOUT, because I was saying I’d like to try Social Work
. . . and I sat and thought about it; and I thought, that s ounds good. And she just said: try it.
She was saying about higher education. And I thought oh, I haven’t really done anything
in the last few years, so that might be a problem. And I thought, yes, I’m going to try it.
148 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
Because you don’t know until you try. So I tried it, and then I came on the phone. Do you
Helen started an access course with REACHOUT which paid her childcare costs to enable her
to study. Within a year she had been accepted to train as a Social Worker. A few weeks before
starting her course, she expressed her worries mainly in terms of coping with being a mother,
as well as a student:
My main worries are just the kids at the moment. You know, will I be able to just work,
without any interruptions. . . . I’m sitting here trying to do the essays and everything, and
take notes, an d the kids are in the background going: `Mu m!’ That worries me more: `Mum!
Mum! Can I have this Mum?’ And I’m working, an d I’m thinking ± if I put them in bed,
and get back to it, but you’ve lost your thought. Oh that is hard. That is my main worry.
She had other worries, too, based on her past experience of education:
Well, you’ve been stopped at school because of racism. . . . You don’t want to go back to
that. You don’t want to go back to where you have to make a stand and say: well, I’m just
as good as you are. You don’t want to go back through all that.
Helen chose to apply to train at a small local college. One reason for doing so was that it was
likely to be less anonymous; the other reason was that she w ould be with three other women
she had met during her studies with RE ACHOUT. On arrival at college, she was nervous, but
she felt supported by her friends:
When I got there I thought: oh no, am I capable to doing this? Have I got in over my head?
You know, I haven’t been through A-levels and so forth. It was a bit dif® cult, but because
of the help I had from us as a group, it was good. It helped me. And when I was stuck, I
asked questions. It is good that we can stick together and ask questions and get information
from each other. It was good. I think if I was isolated, I would have a lot more trouble.
Helen struggled with the academic demands of college. She found it dif® cult to write in the
way that was required by tutors:
It’s reading it as well as putting what you read into your essay. How to do that. I can read
and understand it, but then you have to incorporate it into your own words, but in the words
they want you to say it in. . . . The words, the proper language.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I have dif® culty pronouncing certain words; I avoid using
them, so they’re not familiar to me. So when I’m writing, I ® nd that because I’m not familiar
with the words it’s hard to write them. I think that’s what it is.
Although Helen’s Social Work training strongly emphasized anti-oppressive practice, as well
as academic and practice-based performance, there was a sense in which issues of `race’ and
racism were `silenced’ in class discussion:
Non-traditional students entering higber education 149
There’s a nice atmosphere, apart from when we discuss things like black issues. It’s still a nice
atmosphere, but you can tell that they don’t understand. . . . I think it m akes them feel
they’ve done something wrong. It’ s not them that’s done it; it’ s people above their heads ±
their ancestors or whatever ± but because the iss ue is still there, it still affects us. And I think
when you’re a minority, you feel oppressed more than if you’re in a majority. So the majority
doesn’t feel what the minority’s feeling. It’s hard for them to take on board. But as social
workers, I think they have to. They have to understand what’s going on in the ® eld or they
won’t be able to work in the ® eld.
As well as the academic and practical demands of the course, Helen was having difficulty
® nancially. Although REACHOUT helped her with her childcare costs, she st ruggled to pay
the rent. Helen could not, like child-free students, work in her spare time to make ends meet.
She had childcare responsibilities once college ® nished:
You do n’t realize the problems ® nancially until you start. Like your rent. And when you
realize that when you g et a loan or whatever you get, you have to pay your rent. . . .
Financially, you get into this thing of: how am I going to live? So you tend to cheat a little
bit. You know what I mean? Because you can’t do it any other way.
Helen passed her course, and gained her Social Work diploma. For the ® rst few months after
graduating she was too ill to seek work.
Ruth came from Jamaica to join h er mother at the age of nine. Her experience of schooling in
rural Jamaica was quite different from her schooling in an English city:
We were very poor. I’ m not ashamed to say this. The school was a long way from
home and they didn’ t have bus es allocated for school children like you do here. People
went to sch ool when they could afford it. . . . I think when I came here, I was behind in my
schooling. . . . Yes, I was behind and my reading was poor. But luckily, I loved reading and
I soon caught up reading.
Ruth made friends at school, but she felt that her Jamaican accent marked her out as different:
I think a lot of teachers at that time ± I think that they felt that a lot of black children were
no-hopers. I don’t quite know why. If you had any sort of assertiveness at a ll ± which I think
should belong to all people of colour or whatever you are ± I think you should have some
sort of substance about you. But I think, if y ou did as a black person, you were sort of
`marked’ by it. If you were subdued ± sort of `yes sir, yes miss’ ± not known to have an
opinion ± you were left alone to get on.
Ruth did not feel that he r mother was in a position to encourage her:
My mother was, I think, uneducated herself. And maybe if she was a bit more educated,
things would have been different. I don’t actually blame the school for everything. I thin k
150 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
parents have a role as well, of encouraging their children to do something, to take u p
something, to make good for themselves. And I don’t think I was encouraged so much in
Tension at home meant that Ruth ran away at the age of 15. She was admitted to care for a
while. By the time she returned to school, she had missed her exams:
By the time I went back to school, the exams were over. I didn’t take them. . . . I thought
I couldn’t stay on, because everyone I knew would have been gone. . . . I wasn’t encouraged
to; nobody told me I could.
On leaving school, Ruth was directed to a Youth Training Scheme in catering. She worked
in hotels and then as a club dancer. She went to Germany as a club dancer until illness forced
her to return. When she recovered, she took up training as a secretary:
By then I was getting desperate. You can’t strip off your clothes all the time. I’ve got to make
something of myself. I’ll be old one day. I went up there and I was trying to do this secretarial
course. And I thought, I don’t really want to do this.
Ruth left the course and became a model. She w ent to Germany again and married there. She
learned to speak German ¯ uently and this made her realize that she had academic ability:
I hadn’t got any quali® cations. Without quali® cations, I’m helpless, and I felt vulnerable.
And I also felt that I could not compete with anybody who had quali® cations. I thought,
well, there’s no way I’m going to get anywhere ± no t on the straight and narrow, anyway.
So, at this point I got to Germany. I couldn’t speak German you see. And I decided I want
to know what people are saying about me. That’s how it started. I started to learn German.
And I realized I have a ¯ air for languages.
Ruth then undertook a beauty therapy course in Germany ± studying entirely in German.
However, she was not allowed to take her ® nal exams when it was discovered that she did not
have any previous quali® cations. She came home to England and started all over again, gaining
her quali® cation in England. She soon realized that she was not ful® lling her potential:
I thought I must be capable of something else, or something more. So I started doing little
bits ® rst, like evening classes and I did an introduction to counselling. Then I did an acting
course. I was trying to think: what do I want to do? Do I want to go into acting or something
like that, or do I want to go into counselling? And I realized I wanted to learn something.
But I still had doubts of whether or not I had the ability to do so. Then one day, I was reading
something . . . and I realized maybe, just maybe I’ll be able to do something else, in the
psychological ® eld.
Ruth did some preparatory study with REACHOUT and shortly afterwards enrolled as a
part-time student aiming for a certi® cate of higher education in psychology. She gained excellent
marks on her course, and completed it successfully. However, she did not feel that a part-time
course offered a great deal of support and described it as being: `stapled on to the margins’ of
Non-traditional students entering higber education 151
Most tutors on part-time courses work all day in full-time teaching jobs. When the mature
student arrives in the evening, no matter how enthusiastic she is to learn the subject, the
enthusiasm is dampened because the tutor has no enthusiasm left. Tutors arrive, overwo rked
and tired. Do part-time students get the `left-overs’?
Ruth is now considering whether to complete her degree on a full-time basis. Re¯ ecting on
her experiences she said:
I think everyone needs someone to have faith in them ® rst. It helps them to see that they
can do things well. . . . We needed our parents to h ave said that to us from a very early age.
Through the stories of Salma, Helen and Ruth it is possible to gain a picture of their school
experiences, and the advice, support and guidance available to them in their quest for higher
education quali® cations. What em erges from their descriptions and from those of others in the
study, is their engagement as `frustrated participants’, rather than non-participants in education;
as people who have battled, often with little support, to ® nd an educational and career direction.
From their later descriptions of university study, a picture emerges of people struggling against
® nancial poverty, lack of time, tutor indifference and institutional marginalization.
Participants’ descriptions of their schooldays revealed aspects of school experience which led
them to feel that higher education was not something to which they could aspire, and that their
futures lay in vocational training, early entry to the job market or marriage and family life
immediately after leaving school. Their experience of `difference’ at school and lack of family
information and support were two key factors in¯ uencing the direction their education took.
These factors interacted to reveal a picture of frustrated participants, motivated to succeed
educationally, but unable to do so.
The experience of difference
Ruth and Helen both had their initial education in the country of their birth ± Jamaica. Their
arrival in the English school system left them feeling in adequate and different from their
classmates on the basis of their background language and culture. They underwent secondary
education before th e Swann Report (1985) highlighted the consistent disadvantage experienced
by children from ethnic minorities. Since then, there have been numerous studies directed
towards uncovering the reasons for `underachievement’ among ethnic minority pupils. Some
of these (Wright, 1993; Mac and Ghaill, 1989) have described the formation of counter-school
cultures among school pupils as a consequence of their se nse of marginalization from school
ethos and aims. The sense gained from Ruth’s and Helen’s stories o f school life is that pupils
coming from backgrounds which were other than white and British sensed that they were
viewed with caution and distance by their teachers. None of the participants’ stories revealed
152 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
them as having anti-school attitudes or as participating in anti-school subcultures. On the
contrary, they seemed to remain committed to education both while at school an d afterwards,
in spite of the lack of encouragement they experienced.
The linguistic marginalization of students from working-class backgrounds, fed by theories
of restricted linguistic code (Bernstein, 1973) has been discussed by Gillian Plummer (2000).
The linguistic marginalization of pupils from ethnic minorities has also been noted (Moore,
1993). The assumption of cultural and linguistic superiority, and its inculcation, embedded in
the education system and its modes of teaching, has been described as symbolic violence (Bourdieu,
1977; Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977). It seemed that, for participants struggling with their
newcomer status in British schools, symbolic violence was done to their concept of themselves
as learners, linguists, and as people with a strong cultural and linguistic heritage, which was
denied in the classroom.
Lack of family information and support
Participants felt that their parents’ relationship to the school system held them back
educationally. In particular, they felt disadvantaged by their parents’ outsider status and the lack
of information and guidance which they were able to offer as a result. Those whose parents
were not educated in England seemed to be at a particular disadvantage. In the English post-
16 education system, the choices between vocational, academic and other courses on offer are
often unclear. How much more mystifying must it be to a parent who was not educated in
England, and who has not experienced its school system? Diane Reay (1998) has discussed
parents’, and particularly mothers’ roles in helping their primary school children to accrue
cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1988). The availability of time, information, knowledge and the ability
to be assertive in relation to the education system, appear to be important factors in enabling
children to gain bene® t from it and, ultimately, to gain economic capital. Reay concludes that
migrancy, and in particular the experience of being educated outside Britain, is likely to affect
the extent to which parents can access the bene® ts of education for their own children.
Gillian Plummer (2000) has also described the family pressures which keep girls from
working-class backgrounds from developin g their educational aspirations. There was evidence
in this study that a number of the women experienced similar pressures ± expected to ® ll the
domestic place of absent or sick mothers or become economically active as soon as possible, to
improve the family’s economic situation. The middle-class school student who successfully
takes the requisite number of GCSEs at the age of 16, passes A-levels, and applies for and gains
a university place at the age of 18, has th e bene® t of advice and guidance at each st age in the
process. There is informal support, advice and guidance from family and friends, experienced
in the ways of higher education. Parents know what questions to ask teachers and careers
advisors. They may also have access to information about a wider range of educational and
vocational options compared to the parents of a working-class student. However well-
motivated, non-traditional students seemed to be disadvantaged in advice and support at home.
It also became clear, however, that these disadvantages were not compensated for by of® cial
advice, support and guidance which participants received from careers advisors.
Non-traditional students entering higber education 153
Informational disadvantages seemed to be compounded by the way in which careers advice
was offered, particularly to those who had not, by the age of 16, been considered successful in
their school careers. Careers advice was described as short-term, negative and based on existing
quali® cations, rather than an assessment of future potential or ambitions. It did not take into
account factors such as school absence, home dif® culties or undiagnosed learning problems,
which featured in a number of participants’ accounts of their school careers. They felt screened
out of further academic opportunities because of assumptions made about their perceived failure,
rather than an assessment of their abilities and potential. If they did wish to continue in
education, they tended to be directed towards vocational courses ± secretarial, nurse nursing
or catering. The option of re-sitting GCSEs, or staying on to improve existing quali® cations
rarely seemed to be offered.
For those who did eventually enter higher education, support and guidance were cited
as crucial factors enabling them to move on. Only occasionally, however, was it mentioned as
coming from teachers or careers advisors. In the absence of guidance from of® cial sources, a
number of participants identi® ed key people who had encouraged them. Sometimes, this might
be a comparative stranger. Helen was directed towards REACHOUT by the wife of the local
vicar. Ruth heard of REACHOUT through a friend. Direction seemed to come in a haphazard
way, depending on chance meetings and relationships. An appropriate system of advice,
guidance and support was not there to help participants m ake informed choices when they were
ready to do so.
What was surprising about the educational careers of those interviewed was not their previous
lack of participation, but their high level of engagement in education and training, since leaving
school. All but three of the thirty-two participants had taken part in one or more fo rmally
organized courses in the three years prior to their contact with REACHOUT. These ranged
from basic English parent volunteer courses, access courses and, in one case, the ® rst year of a
degree. In spite of their commitment, they did not feel they had made progress. The doors which
should have opened to them remained closed. What became clear from the research wa s that
most of those interviewed were not non-participants; they were frustrated participants. They had
been active educationally, but unable fully to use their education and the skills they had gained
to win themselves a more satisfying job, better pay and a better lifestyle. They were frustrated
by lack of guidance and support, and a sense that higher education was `not for the likes of them’.
The pattern emerging was of non-traditional students engaged in a struggle against a failure on
the part of official advisors to take their aspirations seriously. This struggle involved most
participants in returning to formal and informal education before eventually ® nding their way,
often by chance, towards their goal of university entry.
Mature students from non-traditional backgrounds often encounter an alien world when they
enter higher education. Frequently, there is no family experience of university life against which
154 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
to assess the likely impact of change. There may have been little contact with university prior
to entry. The stakes can seem high: intending full-time students may have given up secure jobs.
A number of participants described traumatic experiences of previous education. There was a
strong fear of failure, of past humiliations being repeated. For women students with children,
practical problems were anticipated: ® nding time to study when children want attention in the
evening; arranging for children to be picked up from school if lectures go beyond 3.00 p.m.;
meeting the cost of childcare. A great deal of preparation was needed, over and above academic
preparation. Universities rarely seemed to take account of the complex arrangements to be
Anticipating higher education entry, participants tended to stress the practical, rather than
academic challenges of university life, and the sense of urgency that they felt as adults who
were running out of time to reach their goals. There has been discussion (Edwards, 1993;
Woodley, 1987; West, 1996) of whether mature students are more vocationally or academically
oriented than 18 year-old university entrants. The da ta from this study indicates a pragmatic,
goal-directed approach to higher education as a means to a better life. Further research may
indicate whether participants develop a stronger sense of themselves as learners, but this was
not present a s students anticipated starting their courses.
Most participants experienced higher education entry as traumatic and isolating (Weil,
1989). Kathleen Lynch (1999) in her study of inequalities in Irish higher education, identi® es
three broad area in which class constraints operate to impede the progress of working-class
students: the economic; the institutional; and the cultural. In doing so, she provides a useful
framework for exploring the ® rst year experiences of students in this study. There is a danger
that such categorizations can mask the complex and interactive nature of the barriers which
non-traditional students face. They may also omit the dimensions of age, gender and `race’
which interweave into the stories of these participants. However, Lynch’s analysis does move
us away from seeing the nontraditional student as `the problem’ in w idening participation
and enables us to focus upon the contradiction of widening participation in a society where
economic and structural inequalities persist. Mature students, especially those with children,
cannot build their social and academic lives around university. They have complex ® nancial,
personal and caring commitments around which they have to ® t university. Participants were
both ® nancially poor and time poor (Edwards, 1993). Although things appeared to get easier
as time went by, for most, study was to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
For full-time students, like Salma and Helen, lack of money was identi® ed as the most pressing
dif® culty in their studies. Their ® nancial situation changed drastically when they m oved from
state bene® t to student loan. Financial entitlements were not established until well into the ® rst
term, meaning that they were dogged by uncertainty, unsure how they were going to make
ends meet. The banks, by offering further loans, were seen as a part the process of increasing
students’ debt and poverty and reinforcing their feelings that they could not cope. Although
part-time students like Ruth did not have to pay fees, either because their fees were waived
Non-traditional students entering higber education 155
or because REACHOUT met the cost, such students were often low paid and unable to
afford books, childcare costs or computer equipment, which were the norm for more af¯ uent
No allowance is currently made by the government for the childcare costs of students who
are parents. Participants had to search for cheaper, community-based nurseries and after-school
facilities. This, in turn, complicated arrangements for dropping off and collecting children and
increased travelling costs. Some students were unable to undertake paid work during the
holidays or in the evening, as the cost of childcare cancelled out the ® nancial bene® ts of working.
The sense of poverty in relation to better-off students can itself be isolating. Going home
and knowing that there are bills to be paid, which cannot be paid, and that the cost of travel
to university is eating into the money for the family budget can set poorer students apart. It
may make them feel that they are not coping as they should, rather than that the system of higher
education funding is causing them so much difficulty. There has been discussion in the
educational press (THES, 8 October 1999) about the effects of the introduction of student
loans on the recruitment of students from ® na ncially disadvantaged backgrounds. The evidence
of this study con® rms that ® nance is a major barrier, that there is a reluctance on the part of
adult students with families to resort to further loans, and that poverty is a reality for non-
An important aspect of time management was combining study, childcare and fam ily respon-
sibilities as well as, in some cases, paid work. Imposing a structure on these demands was a
key issue for most participants. The picture emerged of women running to keep up with all
the demands on their lives, but determined to do so. Managing tight timetables meant that
participants were aware th at they co uld not give as much time to their studies as they would
like. They had to develop strategies for coping with the work without n eglecting family
responsibilities. This inevitably involved skimping: reading only w hat was essential to pass the
assignment and snatching time to study wherever they could. Other than attending lectures,
participants on full-time courses were not able to spend time at university learning informally,
researching around their subject or attending tutorials. Rosalind Edwards (1993) has described
women in this situation as `Teetering on a knife’s edge with a ® nely-tuned structure of arrange-
ments that they had constructed for ® tting family an d education into their lives (p. 73).
Time management was identified as a major issue in ensuring successful completion of
participants’ studies. They put the onus on themselves to solve the problem of reconciling the
demands of family responsibilities and study. However, what was interpreted as a problem of
time management seemed to be more of a structural than a personal issue ± linked to poverty
itself and to gendered assumptions about the responsibility of women to be home managers and
child carers as well as breadwinners.
Within the university itself, there was another set of obstacles to be overcome: learning the
rules of academia. The dif® culties experienced by both full- and part-time students included
time management, reading and structuring assignments. These in th emselves are co mmon
156 Research Papers in Education Volume 16 Number 2
enough problems. However, running through participants’ accounts were the dif® culties of
understanding what tutors wanted and what advice and support they were prepared to offer,
and of comprehending the mysteries of academic culture and conventions. Th e requirements
of tutors were experienced as unclear and inexplicit. Approaching tutors for help and support
did not tend to bring hoped-for clari® cation. Participants tended to blame themselves for their
inability to understand what tutors required of them.
There was a sense in which students’ own life experiences, including those of poverty
and racism were not seen as legitimate for discussion in the classroom, either because it would
mark th em out as different from their course colleagues, or because they sensed that discussion
of `race’ and racism was not welcome among white students. This seemed to be the case on
both degree courses and on professional training courses, where anti-oppressive practice was
stressed as an essential aspect of the students’ expected learning. It seemed that the valuable
life experiences which this group of students could have brought to their stu dies was censored,
either by the students themselves or by other course members who were unwilling to explore
perspectives other than their own. Furthermore, the experiences of racism an d poverty did not
appear to be taken on board in the classroom, even when, as in the case of both Salma and Helen,
it was highly relevant to curriculum content. Overall, the onus seemed to be on the students
to adapt themselves to the institution and its rules, rather th an on the institution and its main
players to adapt in response to the fresh perspectives which participants brought with them.
Maggie Woodrow (1999) has pointed to the tendency for explanations of under-representation
of low status groups in education to concentrate on the shortcomings of `the victims’ ± the
disadvantaged groups themselves. She stresses the need to examine systemic and institutional
factors which act to exclude certain sections of the population. The data collected in the course
of this study indicate that ® nancial, institutional and class-based barriers impede the progress
of non-traditional students. These barriers emerged early in the educational careers of the
participants and, once outside the school system, they experienced dif® culty moving forward,
in spite of demonstrated and sustained commitment to education as a means to a better life. The
picture of the non-traditional student which emerged was that of a highly motivated but
frustrated participant unable to gain access to support and constructive advice.
As other studies have indicated (Weil, 1989; Pascall and Cox, 1993), transition to higher
education has complex practical