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Social class, ethnicity and the process of ‘fitting in’.

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Social class, ethnicity and the process of ‘fitting in’.

This is not the published draft in:
Scandone, B. (2017). Social class, ethnicity and the process of ‘fitting in’. In R. Waller, N. Ingram & M.
R. Ward (Eds.). Higher Education and Social Inequalities: University Admissions, Experiences, and
Outcomes. Routledge.
Social class, ethnicity and the process of ‘fitting in’
Abstract
The last two decades have seen a considerable increase in the number of working-class and minority
ethnic students participating in higher education. Yet, compared to their white middle-class peers,
students from these background still tend to have higher drop-out rates, lower attainment, and to fare
less well in terms of employment outcomes. This chapter will look at the experiences of British-born
young women of Bangladeshi ethnicity, of both working-class and middle-class origins, to provide a
better understanding of the ways in which ‘getting on’ at university is informed by class and ethnicity
as intersecting dimensions of social identity. To do so, I will draw on in-depth interviews conducted
with 21 female students attending a range of differently ranked institutions in London, and will apply a
Bourdieusian lens of analysis to the main discourses that emerged. Building especially on Bourdieu’s
concepts of habitus and capitals, findings highlight the substantially classed and ‘raced’ character of
participants’ perceptions of ‘fitting in’ at specific institutions and subject degrees, and contribute to
illuminate underlying processes. Furthermore, they draw attention to the role that is played by class
and ‘race’ / ethnicity in shaping common issues confronted at both an academic and social level, and
illustrate in this sense some of the ways in which inequalities are (re)produced through higher
education.
Introduction
In this chapter, I will draw on the experiences of young British-born women of Bangladeshi
heritage to explore some of the multiple ways in which social class intersects with ethnicity in shaping
how students ‘get on’ in higher education. Previous research has revealed how, despite expanding
access, minority ethnic students’ experiences of higher education and related ‘gains’ appear to be
qualitatively distinct from those of their white, middle-class counterparts (Shiner & Modood 1994;
Modood & Acland 1998; Runnymede Trust 2010, 2012; Boliver 2013; Alexander & Arday 2015).
Compared to the latter, working-class students and those of all minority ethnic backgrounds but
Chinese are largely over-represented in the generally less prestigious post ’92 universities, have
lower retention rates, and tend to graduate with lower grades. Leaving aside the ‘racial’ discrimination
that is known to exist in the labour market (Mirza 1992; Botcherby 2006; Ahmed & Dale 2008), this in
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itself represents a powerful barrier in terms of employment. In addition, one’s perceived (lack of)
‘success’ at university is likely to have a lasting impact on individual and collective identities, as it
contributes to structure interpretations of what 'people like us' do (Bourdieu 1984; Reay et al. 2009a).
That is to say, the systematic encounter of more difficulties in education can lead those who share a
given class or ethnic background to see themselves as incapable of achieving within that field, and to
dismiss it as ‘not for them’. When structural and cultural processes at work in excluding minority ethnic
and working-class students from the academic and social environment of prestigious universities, and
in constructing them as ‘underachievers’, are not explicitly recognised, they can in fact easily be
overlooked and internalised as a sense of self (Bourdieu 1984). This, in turn, can generate practices
of auto-exclusion from higher education and especially from top-ranking institutions. In the light of
these considerations, the quest to expose the structures and dynamics underlying minority ethnic
students’ experiences in this area becomes ever more pressing.
Women of Bangladeshi ethnicity, in particular, have long been considered as ‘problematic’ due to
their especially low levels of participation in education and the labour market (Bhopal 1997; Ahmad
2007; Ahmed & Dale 2008). The last 20 years, however, have seen the number of those moving into
university and employment increasing substantially. While a break-down by gender of data is not
available for the 1991 Census, statistics show that between 1991 and 2011 the proportion of
Bangladeshis aged 16+ holding degree level qualifications has risen from 5% to 20%, with women
accounting for around 8% (ONS 2011a, ONS 2011b; Lymperopoulou & Parameshwaran 2015). In
what follows, I will engage with the viewpoints of some of these young women who have entered
higher education, often belonging to the first generation to do so, in the attempt to uncover structural
and cultural influences informing their experiences. The current study will firstly be located within a
larger body of literature that applies a Bourdieusian framework of analysis to the understanding of
social inequalities within higher education, and the specific merits of such an approach in directing
attention to the structural conditionings that come to bear on students’ practices will be considered. I
will then provide a broad overview of the research context and methodology, which draws heavily on
Bourdieu’s conceptual ‘toolbox’ and on notions of intersectionality (Horvat 2002; Brah & Phoenix
2004). Discussion of findings will mainly revolve around participants’ perceptions of ‘fitting in’ at the
institutions attended, touching on some of the most common issues confronted at both a social and
academic level. Specific focus will be placed on the role that is played in this sense by class and
'race'/ethnicity, and on resulting inequalities.
Explaining differential experiences of higher education
Since the turn of the century, unequal access and experiences of higher education have been
investigated by a growing number of studies from a Bourdieusian class perspective (Reay et al.
2001a, 2001b, 2009a, 2009b; Ball at al. 2002a, 2002b; Archer et al. 2007; Abrahams & Ingram 2013).
This literature has importantly highlighted how, contrary to what is implied by myths of meritocracy
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and equal opportunity, university ‘choices’ and concrete experiences are still substantially linked to
students’ socio-economic background, and to the economic, social and cultural capital that this gives
access to. Considerations of affordability, family care and work commitments, capacity to navigate the
education system, and perceptions of ‘fitting in’ at specific institutional environments, all enter into play
in shaping decisions of whether and where to go to university, and whether to continue towards
graduation (Archer & Hutchings 2000; Reay et al. 2001a, 2001b; Ball at al. 2002a, 2002b;).
Furthermore, they impinge on students’ ability to achieve high grades as well as to participate in social
and extra-curricular activities, functioning as both objective and ‘internalised’ constraints (Reay et al.
2009a; Abrahams & Ingram 2013; Bathmaker et al. 2013). In other words, these elements do not only
act as concrete limitations on one’s capacity to do something, but they also produce an anticipation of
one’s limits, either at a conscious or subconscious level, which can lead to the avoidance of people,
places and activities that become perceived as ‘not for the likes of us’ (Bourdieu 1984; Archer et al.
2007; Reay et al. 2001a, 2009a). The relatively few studies that have extended this theoretical
framework to the higher education experiences of minority ethnic students have mainly focused on
‘choice’ of institution, and have revealed the working of similar processes revolving primarily around
class (Reay et al. 2001b; Ball et al. 2002b). Adding to this, they have shown how, while by no means
the only consideration, perceived lack of ‘ethnic mix’ and ‘white predominance’ within a given
university’s student population appeared to discourage some students of minority ethnic background
from applying, as this tended to produce an anticipation of being regarded as ‘other’ as opposed to
‘fitting in’.
As some of this research has evidenced, another essential way in which social class affects the
experience of university is through the dynamics of ‘habitus’, which has been defined by Bourdieu
(1977, p. 72) as: ‘[a] system(s) of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures
predisposed to function as structuring structures’. Habitus can therefore be seen as a matrix of
perception, which builds on subsequent individual and collective ‘classed’ - and, I suggest, ‘raced’
(Horvat 2002; Archer & Francis 2006, 2007) - experiences, and engenders practices in line with that
pre-reflexive understanding. Like individuals, higher education institutions too have a habitus, which
mainly includes ‘curriculum offer, organisational practices, and less tangible, but equally important,
cultural and expressive characteristics’(Reay et al. 2009a, p. 3), and of which academic status is an
important aspect. Bourdieu argues that when habitus encounters a field of which it is not the product,
as happens to working-class students in top-ranking universities, it finds itself like ‘a fish out of water’,
which leads to one becoming more self-aware (Bourdieu 1990). This can in turn generate what
Bourdieu (1999, p. 511) defines as a ‘cleft habitus’, that is: ‘a habitus divided against itself, in constant
negotiation with itself and its ambivalences’. Other studies have brought to light a more nuanced
situation, with the students’ habituses responding in different ways to the newly encountered context,
and performing a varied range of adaptations to the institutional environment ranging from
detachment to immersion (Reay et al. 2009a, 2009b; Ingram 2011; Abrahams & Ingram 2013). In their
articles on the experiences of working-class students, in particular, Reay et al. (2009a, 2009b),
highlight how there is no ‘easy fit’ between social identities, dispositions towards learning (learner
identities) and different institutional habituses. Some of the students in predominantly working-class
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institutions, characterised by a ‘laid back’ approach to study, felt in fact like they ‘fitted in’ socially but
not academically, while most of those in high-status, predominantly middle-class institutions,
experienced the ‘paradox of fitting in in terms of learner orientations’ (Reay et al. 2009a, p. 11). Both
social and learner identities are moreover modified, reinforced or transformed through the experience
of university. As these studies also point out, however, even where students appear to be able to
‘successfully’ adapt to the university environment, this involves nonetheless considerable distress.
Some research has also been done which looks more specifically at how students from a
minority ethnic background in general, and South Asian women in particular, ‘get on’ in university
(Modood & Acland 1998; Osler 1999; Tyers et al. 2004; Tyrer & Ahmad 2006; Bagguley & Hussain
2007; Dhanda 2010). The issues emerged have mainly to do with scarcity of finances, perceived lack
of academic support and of attention to ethnic diversity within curriculum and practices, feelings of
social isolation, and with more or less direct experiences of racism and Islamophobia. While some of
these aspects can be traced back to students’ class background, it is clear thatrace’ and ethnicity
also play a major role in shaping higher education experiences. Apart from explicit ‘racial’
discrimination and harassment, which do not seem to be common but still exist, all of these studies
mention students’ sense of isolation and their concerns for the lack of diversity in institutional culture
and social networks as recurring themes in participants’ accounts. In this respect, the substantial
under-representation of minority ethnic academic staff appears to feed into the mono-culturalism and
institutional racism prevailing in university environments, while stripping students of the benefits of a
more diverse range of perspectives and of important role models (Andrews 2015; Shilliam 2015).
South Asian Muslim women, moreover, have long been depicted as being prevented from fully
participating in ‘modern’ British society, including education and the labour market, by ‘traditional’
patriarchal family and community norms (Bhopal 1997; Ahmad 2007; Ahmed & Dale 2008). Despite
growing research challenging such stereotypes by emphasising diversity and ‘agency’ within their
lived experiences (Ahmad 2001; Tyrer & Ahmad 2006; Mellor 2012), Muslim women still tend to be
depicted by media portraits and common-sense assumptions as either ‘victims’ or ‘rebels’, and their
appearance and behaviour have increasingly come under public scrutiny as symbols of ‘oppression’
and ‘extremism’ (Navarro 2010; Janmohamed 2014a, 2014b; Iqbal 2015; Waheed 2015). As will
emerge from reported findings, while these die-hard stereotypes are far from representative of the
young girls I interviewed, they can nonetheless have important consequences in terms of their
involvement in the university’s social environment.
Research context and methodology
The present study focuses on the experiences of 21 British-born young women of Bangladeshi
ethnicity, who at the time of this research were undertaking undergraduate studies at a range of
different universities in London. London is home to around 58% of the UK Bangladeshi population,
which is highly concentrated in specific areas (ONS 2011c). 19% of the total live in the Eastern
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borough of Tower Hamlets, where they account for 32% of residents (ONS 2011c). This is one of the
most deprived local authorities in England, and a traditional area of settlement for Bangladeshi
immigrants, most of whom coming from the rural district of Sylhet (Department for Communities and
Local Government 2009, 2010; ONS 2011c). Although unintentionally, this residential pattern was also
manifested in my sample, where most participants originally came from Tower Hamlets. Some of them
had then moved with their parents to Outer London boroughs, especially those of Redbridge and
Barking & Dagenham, reflecting the tendency for upwardly mobile minority ethnic families to move
from the inner city to the suburbs in search for better housing and schooling opportunities, and for a
‘safer’ neighbourhood environment (Butler & Hamnett 2011).
The universities attended by the young women who took part in this study are very different from
one another in terms of ranking, educational curriculum and practices, student intake, social
environment, and all of those elements which can be seen as constituting their institutional habitus
(Reay et al. 2009a, p.3). Such diversity afforded the opportunity to gather a range of perspectives on
the ‘fit’ between individual and institutional habitus at different levels (social and academic), and to
explore in this way the array of structural and cultural aspects that enter into play in shaping these
perceptions. All of these universities are located in London. While this was a consequence of my
‘recruitment strategy’, it was interesting to note that most interviewees had only applied to institutions
within the city, reflecting what is already indicated by other studies (Runnymede Trust 2010). The few
exceptions were represented by applications to Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities1
outside of London. However, since those who applied to these universities had very high A-level
grades and some of the most prestigious Russell Group universities are in London, they finally ended
up remaining here, as this allowed them to attend the ‘best’ institution they could access with those
grades.
Blueville, High Valley, Western, Greenshore and Bayside (pseudonyms) are all Russell Group
universities, Riverdale is an ‘old’ university but not part of the Russell Group, and Melrose, Woodgate
and King George are all ex-polytechnics. High Valley, Western and Blueville, in particular, are among
the country’s highest ranking institutions, while Melrose and Woodgate are amongst the lowest (The
Complete University Guide 2016). All of the Russell Group universities, except for Bayside, have very
high minimum A-levels entry standards, a sizeable international student body, and a UK-domiciled
minority ethnic constituency which in the year 2013/14 accounted for about 20-25% of the total of
those studying at undergraduate level (University of Oxford 2015; HESA 2016). Whilst also being part
of the Russell Group of Universities, Bayside represents an exception in terms of both entry
standards, which are somewhat more ‘relaxed’, and of UK-domiciled minority ethnic students intake.
Being the only Russell Group university to be located in an inner city area, Bayside is ‘local’ to a
considerable minority ethnic population, which is mirrored in the student composition. Here, in
2013/14, UK-domiciled ethnic minorities represented around 45% of undergraduate students, with a
large proportion of South Asians (approximately. 30% of UK-domiciled students and 20% of the total)
1 The Russell Group is an organisation that represents 24 top-ranking, research intensive UK
universities, with a widespread reputation for academic excellence
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(University of Oxford 2015; HESA 2016). Riverdale has similar entry standards to those of Bayside,
and, according to the university’s statistics, UK-domiciled students of minority ethnic background
accounted in 2013/14 for around 30% of the total number of undergraduates. At the other end of the
spectrum, King George, Woodgate and Melrose all have a substantial percentage of UK-domiciled
ethnic minority students, ranging from approximately 40 to 50% of the total in 2008/09, and not as
many international students. Woodgate’s and King George’s student bodies, in particular, are among
the most diverse in the UK, with a proportion of South Asians which is one of the highest (21% and
28% respectively of the undergraduates total) (The Complete University Guide 2016).
In terms of family background, almost all of these young women’s parents, except two of the
mothers, were born in Bangladesh, and came to the UK at different points in their lives. Most fathers
or stepfathers (15 out of 21) had jobs which could broadly be defined as working-class. It is however
important to note that differences existed among these jobs not only in terms of earnings and status,
but also and especially of the type and amount of related social and cultural capital, as this category
included occupations as diverse as construction and factory workers, mini-cab drivers, chefs, tailors,
shopkeepers, mentors and tutors. One was unemployed, and four had what can instead be seen as
‘typically’ middle-class jobs, either as business owners or as professionals, which also appeared to
differ from one another in terms of social and cultural capital. For example, between that held by a
restaurant owner without formal qualifications and a doctor with both a Bangladeshi and a UK
university degree. Most of the mothers (14) were housewives, with the exception of five who worked
at different levels in the social and education sector (as childminder, primary school supervisor,
teaching assistants and local government social worker), and of two who were company directors.
Apart from those young women whose parents had middle-class jobs, they were all of the first
generation to go to university, although some of them had older siblings and family members who
went before them. This last aspect, like the age at which their parents came to the UK, and even
subtle differences between their parents’ jobs, were all significant elements in shaping participants’
university experiences, but could not be discussed here for reasons of space.
What I intend to do, instead, is to provide a broad overview of such experiences, touching on
mostly recurring themes. In doing so, I will apply a Bourdieusian lens to the analysis of characteristic
features, in the hope to uncover underlying structures and processes at work in shaping stances and
practices, and in (re)producing inequalities. As mentioned earlier, I consider this an imperative task at
a time where, at least in a large part of policy and public discourse, the blame for minority ethnic
‘underachievement’ in education tends to be uncritically attributed to ‘dysfunctional community
cultures’. Contrary to this view, I contend that experiences of higher education can be more
adequately seen as shaped by intersecting economic and cultural dynamics of power, which
contribute to place students of working-class and minority ethnic backgrounds outside of dominant
social fields. Particular attention will thus be paid to the multiple ways in which different dimensions of
social identity such as class, ‘race’ and ethnicity inter-relate with, and qualify, one another, to produce
differential positionings and experiences (Brah & Phoenix 2004). In the context of this work, the use of
Bourdieu’s conceptual toolbox is deliberately intended as a methodological approach which helps us
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to unpack intersectionality, recognising and more fully attending to the layering of class and
‘race’/ethnicity in mediating agency (Horvat 2002).
Perceptions of ‘fitting in’
The role of multiple dimensions of social identity and habitus
Perceptions of ‘fitting in’ at particular institutional settings emerged as a major aspect affecting
participants’ higher education experiences. As pointed out by Ball et al. (2002b) in the above
discussed study, such perceptions were largely related to the universities’ ‘ethnic mix’. Findings from
this research, however, portray a slightly more complex picture of students’ interpretations of the
context, where class, religion and habitus also enter into play in characterising ‘ethnic mix’ and ‘fitting
in’. In this respect, it is evident that what is defined by participants as a ‘multicultural’ environment, in
which they feel ‘comfortable’, can vary substantially depending on their socio-economic background
and past experiences of ‘ethnic mix’ in primary and secondary school.
The relevance held by multiple layers of social identity (social class, ethnicity, gender, religion,
etc.) in defining students’ position within a given context, as well as their understanding of this same
context and related sense of belonging, is apparent when comparing the accounts of two young
women, Sadia and Flora (pseudonyms), both attending top-ranking institutions, Greenshore and High
Valley. Like most participants in this study, Sadia is Muslim, and comes from a working-class
background. In the following quote, these elements can be seen as adding to her being of minority
ethnic origins, and coming together to convey her sense of ‘standing out’:
‘At first, I will be honest, it was quite difficult because Greenshore is still a very white middle-
class institution and that is reflected in my course. […] And then international students like even
though there is a mix but they still come from, I mean they all went to private schools, British or
American colleges, so you will see the kind of calibre within the course. […] But then it's quite tragic
the way I see it. Why should I be one of the few, one of the only within a course of 160 you know, to
be the only person wearing a scarf or you know, just to be of that background?’ (Sadia, working-class,
Greenshore)
For Sadia, ethnicity, religion, and class all function to position her as ‘other’ with respect to the
majority of students in her course. Therefore, even though there are other students who come from
different ethnic backgrounds, her being working-class and Muslim still acts to confer distance. This
resonates with the experiences of most other working-class young women in top-ranking universities,
and allows in some cases for the development of a reflexive stance, where they become aware of
how important their presence in predominantly white, middle-class environments is in challenging
such ‘exclusivity’. This is in fact what happened with Sadia, enabling her to become more resilient:
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‘And then I realised like, when I felt like I shouldn't be here or anything like that, I thought it's
actually really important for us to be in the institution in order to change the institution. So I felt as it
was more of a responsibility.’
Conversely, the description provided by Flora, who comes from a middle-class family and is
the only non-Muslim in my sample, serves to illustrate how the obliteration of class and religious
distinctions allows for an emphasis on common minority ethnic background. That is, shared cultural
capital along the lines of class and religion, and a habitus in line with that of her institution and the
majority of its student body, mean that Flora is not constantly reminded of her ‘being different’. Unlike
Sadia, her self-awareness in terms of these dimensions is thus weakened, enabling her to focus
solely on ethnicity:
‘It's really great, it's really a multicultural environment because there's so many international
students so you never really feel, you probably, I think people who are from ethnic minorities or from
abroad probably feel like they are more in the majority than the minority because there's so many of
us at High Valley.’ (Flora, middle-class, High Valley)
Greenshore and High Valley have a very similar proportion of UK-domiciled minority ethnic
students, accounting for around 25% of those studying at undergraduate level. Adding to this minority
ethnic presence, is that of international students, who make up about 25% and 40% respectively of
the total number of undergraduates. The socio-economic profile of this latter group is quite
distinctively upper/middle-class (HEFCE 2010). While Flora, who comes herself from a middle-class
background, can thus largely identify with this presence, Sadia’s possibility for identification is instead
problematized by the markers of different socio-economic locations.
Another important element in producing different perceptions of the same environment is a
students’ habitus, intended as dispositions acquired through the integration of past experiences. Class
and ethnicity undoubtedly play a major role in shaping habitus, as they substantially contribute to
delineate the range of possible experiences. Findings from this study, however, show how even
among students from similar ethnic and class backgrounds, exposure to different ‘class and ethnic
mixes’, especially during secondary school, can have a considerable impact on attitudes. This is
especially visible in Chandi’s and Shay’s narratives. In contrast to the former, who was brought up and
schooled in Tower Hamlets, the latter had moved at a young age to an area with only a small number
of South Asian Muslims, and had been attending a secondary school where she was one of the very
few Bangladeshi pupils. Even though they both go to the same university, Bayside, their perceptions
and descriptions of such context appear to be very different:
‘It's very multicultural so I like that. There’s every sort of race, religion, culture all over and I
mean, I like that. I'm learning more about other people, I'm learning more about me, there is so many
languages and cultures to learn and I enjoy that.’ (Chandi, working-class, Bayside)
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‘It’s a bit dirty, yeah, not very diverse, yeah. It just felt like, because it’s very Bengali centred
around here so it wasn’t, it was just like being at home, it wasn’t something new. […] I mean I’m not
too fond of Bengali culture. So it gets a bit annoying when you are just surrounded by those cultures
that you don’t really fit into and I don’t fit into the Bengali culture.’ (Shay, working-class, Bayside)
UK-domiciled ethnic minorities represent around 45% of Bayside's intake, with South Asians making
up for approximately 20% of the total. For Chandi, who has always attended schools where South
Asian Muslims, and Bangladeshis in particular, were a large majority, this specific make-up is
perceived as 'very multicultural'. Shay, on the other hand, whose secondary school experience has
been characterised by engagement with pupils from other ethnicities and progressive dis-identification
with her own, considers this same environment as 'not very diverse'. Interestingly, it is with students
from her same ethnicity that she feels like she does not ‘fit in’.
The four stories reported above are profoundly revealing of the role played by class and 'race'
/ ethnicity in shaping perceptions of 'fitting in' at given institutions. Firstly, they show how these young
women’s considerations over the aspects that make them feel more or less 'at ease' within their
universities' environment have much to do with the institution - or, as attested by other accounts,
degree subject - socio-economic intake. Furthermore, they testify to the weight that class and ethnic
identifications, and past schooling experiences, hold in generating differential appraisals of similar
settings. Flora’s and Sadia’s distinct class positions, for example, respectively support and undermine
their sense of ‘fitting in’, despite both their universities being characterised by a large minority ethnic
presence. Shay and Chandi demonstrate in addition how such perceptions are not only affected by
social identities, but also, significantly, by self-identifications and acquired cultural capital. In this
respect, the experiences to which one is exposed both at school and outside, particularly during
childhood and adolescence but also later in life, can be seen as especially crucial, because of how
they influence access to different types of cultural capital and ideas of self.
The impact of symbolic violence on 'choice' and self-perceptions
Participants’ narratives also highlight the variety of preferences which can be expressed in
terms of the university’s ethnic composition, with some being more drawn to a setting characterised
by a large number of ethnic minorities and ‘familiarity’, and others looking for ‘something different’
from what they are used to. Chandi and Kanta provide an example of this range of approaches:
‘So I thought if I got to Western it would be full of sort of stuck up posh people that I wouldn't
be able to get along with. But over here [at Bayside] is much more cultural, it’s like you could get
along with people, you could understand East London or London life so that's nice.’ (Chandi, working-
class, Bayside)
‘I think it's because I've always been living in Tower Hamlets, I've always been in the same
community surrounded by the same sort of people. So I think part of it was to have University as an
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option to expose myself to a different, not even to a different lifestyle but to different types of people
and to really experience University in a different way.’ (Kanta, working-class, Western)
As emerges from Chandi’s account, prevailing class and ethnic composition almost appear to overlap
in the understandings that some of these young women offer of the university climate, with middle- /
upper- ‘classness’ and whiteness being perceived as strictly entrenched. However, it must also be
recognised that, despite anticipations of not ‘fitting in’ at the institution of their choice, almost all
participants opted to apply for the most prestigious London universities they could access with their
grades.
Chandi is the only one to talk about her decision not to apply to a more prestigious institution,
despite having the grades to potentially do so, as an active ‘choice’. As her further elaboration reveals,
however, this ‘choice’ is in effect underlaid by the workings of symbolic violence, which constructs
predominantly white middle-class universities as the domain of ‘ambitious’ students, and consequently
dismisses minority ethnic and working-class students who do not fit into that environment as simply
‘not ambitious enough’:
‘This was my first choice. I didn't bother applying for Blueville or Western because even
though I did get really good A-level results I feel like Blueville or Western wouldn't take me for some
reason. I guess I wasn't ambitious enough. But I thought Bayside would take me so..’ (Chandi,
working-class, Bayside)
It is in this taken-for-grantedness that the symbolic power of dominant attributions of value
relative to institutions and their intake asserts itself fully, by concealing the hierarchies of inequality
that both sustain and result from them (Bourdieu 1984; Robbins 1991). The equation of locality and
large minority ethnic presence with low educational standards represents in this sense a relevant
example. The ambiguity expressed by Farhan in relation to Woodgate, where she is currently
studying, testifies to the pervasiveness of this conception, and shows how unsettling it can be for
students especially as they start university:
‘I didn’t want to come to Woodgate only because it’s no good for me, and when I started uni
Woodgate didn’t really have a great reputation. […] But when I got into Woodgate, I got to settle down
and everything, it was a lot more different. I didn’t realize that it was better for me to come here than
to have gone all the way to Oakley in terms of everything. […] I feel more comfortable than I think I
would have in any other place […].’
Berenice: ‘Right, in what sense do you feel like you would be more comfortable here rather than any
other uni?’
Farhan: ‘I would have to say because of the people. Because where I come from, whether it’s been
school, college, even where I live, it’s always filled with ethnic minorities. So I can get a link, I can
communicate or I gain an instant bond. […] A lot of people have this image of Woodgate so it’s like I’d
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rather not come in. […] Because it’s a local uni, everyone local goes there so therefore it’s not as
great because only local people come here. They’re not very clever, they’re not very intelligent, they
just got here for the sake of getting here because they couldn’t get anywhere else.’ (Farhan, working-
class, Woodgate)
Throughout her reflection, Farhan brings up the dissonance between Woodgate’s negative reputation
and the positive experience she had of the university. This reputation informed her view of Woodgate
and its students to the point that she ‘didn’t want to come’. Yet, when finally going, she found herself
feeling ‘more comfortable [here] than [she] would have in any other place’. This dilemma, of ‘fitting in’
at universities that are commonly considered of lesser value, was experienced by many of those
young women whose grades at A-levels prevented them from accessing more prestigious institutions.
Where these stereotypes go unchallenged, they can have a detrimental impact on students’
confidence, and on the images they hold of themselves as learners.
Academic experience
As we have seen, research focusing on the difficulties experienced by students from diverse
minority ethnic backgrounds in relation to ‘educational achievement’ has revealed that main concerns
have to do with the extra burden imposed by limited finances, and with a perceived lack of support
from teaching staff (Tyers et al. 2004; Bagguley & Hussain 2007; Dhanda 2010). The widespread
reference to the impact of restricted economic resources among minority ethnic students is strictly
related to prevailing working-class background among this population (Clark & Drinkwater 2007).
Other studies have clarified the relation between financial constraints and lower academic attainment,
showing how these considerably affect the amount and quality of time which can effectively be spent
on studying, which also resonates with my participants’ accounts (Reay et al. 2009a; Bradley &
Ingram 2012).
Perceived lack of academic support is another issue which tends to be reported more by
students of minority ethnic origins than by their White British peers (Dhanda 2010). While the
relationship here might seem less straightforward, I propose the adoption of Bourdieu’s concept of
habitus as a useful tool through which to aid explanation. Habitus is especially helpful as it allows to
place the attention on the links between one’s past and current learning environments, and to interpret
students’ ‘easiness’ with certain approaches as structured by previous exposure to similar
expectations. In the following excerpts, Labiba and Kanta, two working-class young women who have
attended secondary school together, and are studying at the top-ranking university Western, reflect
over the teaching and assistance received now and back then, providing an example of these links.
Kanta additionally makes explicit the lower likelihood for her as a Bangladeshi of being exposed to
challenging modes of learning, because of living in a borough like Tower Hamlets where schools have
a predominantly working-class, minority ethnic intake.
11
‘I think it's really, I mean it's a big jump between school and university, a big jump. […]
Because obviously your first term, there is this kind of, you know, just throw you in so they don’t kind
of, there’s no support available to help you settle in if that makes sense. I think they just kind of like
expect you to do all these essays, all these like so many readings, and just expect you to know things
rather than supporting you, understanding, helping you.’ (Labiba, working-class, Western)
‘I think the learning I got at my school was fantastic, but I think, compared to some other
schools in Tower Hamlets. But even then I would say there was an element of spoon feeding for
instance and lack of critical thinking at my school which I perhaps would have got if I wasn’t a Bengali,
which would have meant I would probably live somewhere else and I would have received a certain
type of education.’ (Kanta, working-class, Western)
Such connection is even more evident when we compare the above accounts with that of
Flora, who has been privately schooled throughout her life and is now enrolled at another prestigious
university:
‘So our school did exams every year rather than just SATs, so it means I was really used to
doing exams. Also, because it was a private school, you were always expected to perform well. We
were used to working hard, like what to us was working normally to someone else would be working
hard. So I'm used to kind of working, and I was used to my level of knowledge being at quite a high
standard even without me realising just because of the school.’ (Flora, middle-class, High Valley)
Once we take this perspective, it can be seen how difficulties with the considerable workload
and mainly individual mode of learning which is expected of students at university, and feelings of ‘not
being supported enough’, can be traced back to dispositions acquired throughout primary and
secondary school. Where we consider that a higher proportion of minority ethnic students live in fairly
deprived areas compared to White British, which as noted by Kanta in the above quotation also
means receiving a different type of education, it is therefore not so surprising that they tend to report
these problems more often. This ‘mismatch’ between acquired dispositions and institutional
environment, or between individuals’ learner and institutional habitus (Reay et al. 2009a, 2009b), is
especially evident in high-ranking and elite universities, where the majority of students traditionally
come from middle and upper-class backgrounds and will most likely have had different schooling
standards. While some interviewees had developed a reflexive viewpoint, which allowed them to
recognise this nexus, for some this appeared to generate feelings of pressure and insecurity.
Social experience
For the young women who took part in this research, class, ‘race’ / ethnicity, and importantly
religion, also appeared to substantially shape their experiences of university in terms of relations with
other students, friendship networks and social activities they got involved in. This happened in more
12
or less obvious ways, as these dimensions of social identity interacted with one another to produce
different outcomes, with cultural capital and habitus being especially important elements in defining
social identity in the first place. In particular, as will emerge more clearly from the following accounts,
the environment where one has been living throughout his/her life, and previous schooling, seem to
have a crucial influence on the degree to which he/she is accustomed to relating with people from
different socio-economic backgrounds. Furthermore, findings suggest that it is mainly through cultural
capital that class and ethnic distinctions take place, especially with regards to lifestyles, beliefs and
values.
When asked about their relationships with people from different ethnicities, all participants
stated that neither ethnicity nor religion were important to them. Yet, for most of them, their actual
friendship networks did not include anyone from a White British background, and close friendships
were mainly formed with other Muslims. Leena’s and Jamila’s observations, reported below, show
how even ‘ethnically mixed’ institutions like Bayside can have low levels of ‘ethnic mixing’ (see also
Hollingworth & Mansaray 2012). Rather than this being an active ‘choice’, it appears to be linked to
different lifestyles and opportunities for socialising, as well as to processes of ‘othering’, of which
these young women are very aware. In this respect, being Muslim stands out as an especially
relevant aspect in characterising social experiences:
‘It just sort of happened. […] During Fresher’s week, and you know, the other parties that
there are on campus, and so they tend to… and also most [White students] live out of, they live on
campus so outside, so they have that kind of friendship where they are seeing each other and they
party or they are living together […]. Whereas most of, well actually all of my friends, we live at home,
and we don’t really party like that or drink so we don’t have that kind of exposure in that sense.’
(Jamila, working-class, Bayside)
‘I think people tend to gravitate towards that they feel comfortable with. So if I see like
someone that’s my face and culture I’d probably gravitate towards them, it’s more safe I guess, and
comfortable, so I think that’s why everyone tends to stick together. […] Like I know that especially
wearing the headscarf like you come across like: ‘Oh she’s practicing, she’s religious, she might not
be like us’. There’s that whole divide thing, so I think that might affect my uni life.’ (Leena, working-
class, Bayside)
Those participants who came from a middle-class background, on the other hand, seemed
more confident than others in forming friendships with White British students. This appears to be best
attributable to habitus as a whole, including the ‘imprinting’ of past experiences, as both Shirina and
Flora have been schooled in a non-Bengali Muslim environment, with a large number of White British
pupils. Rani, instead, who also comes from a middle-class background but has been living in
Bangladesh for most of her schooling years, and was home-schooled when in UK, has mainly made
friends with international students. Nevertheless, it is significant that even Shirina and Flora’s closest
friends are mostly Asian. As Shirina herself is keen to tell me, this provides her with a sense of
‘community’, with whom she could relate in terms of common issues:
13
‘I love Bangla Society because it's basically people that I can relate to. Because at my school
there wasn’t as many Bengalis, so like I didn't have anyone in my culture who had the same issues
like curfew, staying in London, not going out late. […] So at Bangla Society I have a whole family of
friends that can relate to me, so if we do socials we ensure that it ends at 9, not like at 12, so that
everyone can get home on time because everyone is in the same boat […] and yeah, I love it.’
(Shirina, middle-class, Blueville)
One of the main ways in which social class intersected with ethnicity in qualifying
interviewees’ social experiences was therefore by affecting the ethnic and class composition of their
social networks, and especially by facilitating or hindering the formation of friendships with White
British middle-class students. For the young women interviewed, in specific, it seemed to be the case
that friendships were either formed with other minority ethnic students from different class
backgrounds, or, for middle-class students, with others from the same class background including
White British. This is especially important to note where we consider the resulting differential in the
capacity to access dominant social and cultural capital, which puts working-class minority ethnic
students at a disadvantage in the higher education and labour market field.
As argued earlier, moreover, participants’ narratives often referred to perceptions of (not)
‘fitting in’ at particular institutional environments, which was strongly related to the predominant class
and ethnic composition of the university and course of studies attended, and mainly found expression
in feelings of difference or similarity of mind-set. This is illustrated for instance in the following quotes
from Sadia and Labiba, respectively studying Geography at Greenshore and Sociology at Western,
where they reflect on the social environment of the course they are enrolled at:
‘It’s not even just the privileges, it’s the mind-set, I wouldn't necessarily agree with them. Like,
I don't know, I know someone who would be very like: ‘Colonialism was okay, it was right’. […] Or like
they wouldn't think white supremacy exists when people of colour definitely know it exists. Those kind
of differences, especially in mind-set and political views. Or like, you know, they’re only in it for the
money and, you know, that kind of lifestyle.’ (Sadia, working-class, Greenshore)
I mean in terms of my degree I think we’re all pretty much the same, and even if we're not
we’re all pretty much like on the same wavelength I guess, if that makes sense, and it's more
comfortable I guess. […] Because we’re pretty much split between quantitative and qualitative
subjects. […] Like social science type subjects, there’s a lot more people like me, who have like very
radical thoughts so it, the class system and left/right politics is very much, people who think like me.
And they will talk to you like idiots, on the other side, but tend to be like white male, who tend to have
very, like, right wing attitudes and from, you know, privileged backgrounds I guess.’ (Labiba, working-
class, Western)
What comes out from these accounts as being especially relevant is therefore the way in
which other students approach issues of class and ‘race’/ethnicity, more than their class and ethnic
14
backgrounds per se, although the two are often related. Sadia’s further elaboration provides in this
respect an illuminating example:
‘Sometimes I wish I went to another university which is Riverdale. […] I have a lot of friends
who study in both Greenshore and Riverdale, part of their kind of degree. And like they always
mention how like Riverdale they’ll only be questioned intellectually and people only look at your kind
of the way in which you think, whereas in Greenshore people look at the way in which you are, the
social group that you come from, where you live, how you, you know, what your parents do and
whatnot, your background. […] And I think it’s probably like, it comes from the selection process of the
amount of people who are from private schools or from a white middle class background.’
These considerations serve to highlight how, while there is scope for attachments and belongings to
be structured around either class or ‘race’/ethnicity while cutting across the other, a strong influence is
carried by the ‘culture’ which is dominant within certain institutions and subject areas, and by the type
of capital which is mostly valued. This, in fact, can function to exacerbate social distinctions,
hampering the establishment of relations across class and ‘race’ and contributing to mark not only
certain universities but also certain degrees and areas of study as ‘not for us’. For working-class and
minority ethnic students, this means feeling excluded and thus as attested by Sadia potentially
being led to excluding oneself – from important fields of knowledge, experience and interaction, which
tend to remain a privilege of the white middle-classes. In this sense, the under-representation of
ethnic minorities and the working-classes is both a symptom and a cause of a lack of inclusivity
towards different lifestyles and systems of value.
Conclusions
The above discussion has considered some of the overarching issues faced in higher
education by the young British-born women of Bangladeshi heritage who participated in this study.
Especially recurrent in their narratives of university experiences, both social and educational, were
references to feelings of ‘fitting in’ or ‘standing out’ in particular settings, more or less positive
comments on the support received from teaching staff, and concerns over the lack of ‘ethnic mixing’.
These findings are therefore broadly in line with those reported in previous research on minority ethnic
university students (Osler 1999; Tyers et al. 2004; Tyrer & Ahmad 2006; Bagguley & Hussain 2007;
Dhanda 2010), as well as further qualifying them. In presenting such findings, I have employed a
Bourdieusian framework of analysis, and have heavily drawn, in particular, on his concepts of cultural
capital and habitus. I have done so with the intention to provide more solid groundings to the broader
understanding of the distinctive character that the interplay of class and ‘race’/ethnicity confers to
experiences of university, which the individual stories of the young women interviewed can help to
illuminate.
15
In particular, this approach has allowed light to be shed on the dynamics underlying multiple
(mis)alignments between students and the social and educational environment they find themselves
in. Most of those I spoke with had applied for the ‘best’ possible universities in London they could
hope to be accepted at, depending on the grades they had achieved during GCSEs and A-levels.
They did so despite expecting a challenging environment, where they might not have easily ‘fitted in’,
with some expressing the deliberate will to tackle perceptions of top-ranking institutions being
exclusively for the white middle-class. However, it also needs to be recognised that symbolic violence
constructing universities with a large number of ethnic minorities as holding lower standards, and
predominantly white-middle class institutions as for the ‘bright and talented’ still has a profound impact
on students’ self-perception and experiences. As we have seen, one of these young women decided
not to apply for a more prestigious university despite having the grades to potentially do so because
she felt ‘she wasn’t ambitious enough’. While it was her anticipation of feeling excluded from that
world rather than lack of ambition that made her opt for a more ‘ethnically mixed’ university, therefore,
she had internalised a specific (dominant) discourse, which functioned to conceal underlying
structures of exclusion whilst placing the blame on the individual. In addition, the majority of them
either did not have the grades to apply to ‘better’ universities, or had the application for their ‘first
choice’ rejected. For these students, symbolic violence meant they had to come to terms with the
lower status attributed to their university and, consequently, to them as learners. Finally, those that
managed to access prestigious institutions encountered a number of issues relating to both social and
educational aspects of ‘fitting in’. In making sense of these issues, it is useful to think about the mis-
match between students’, institutions’ and subject areas’ habitus and valued cultural capital (Reay et
al. 2009a), all of which are classed and raced – as well as gendered, although there was no space to
discuss this in the context of the present chapter. In this light, the influence of class and ‘race’/ethnicity
in shaping experiences can be seen as especially revealing itself through the ways in which these
dimensions of social identity, in their various manifestations, are perceived and received in ‘dominant’
settings.
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In this article, we discuss the results of qualitative research carried out at an Italian university for shedding light on the transition students undergo on entry to university, and for understanding associated difficulties that lead to student drop out. We use Vincent Tinto's and Pierre Bourdieu's theoretical apparatuses for analysing drop out in higher education as a process in which inequalities are expressed and reproduced. The intertwined social and institutional mechanisms, and flawed decision‐making processes, that precede entry to university are explored. Particular attention is given to student perceptions of their experiences at university and the factors leading to progressive disengagement and drop out. The empirical material analysed shows that, although access to university is relatively easy within the Italian context, hurdles to the pursuit of a university education are largely hidden. Students who withdraw are those who are unable to embody the codes, rules and functioning of higher education: those who do not manage to internalise the type of disciplined autonomy needed for responding to academic demands. Personal characteristics and background resources are key for enabling students to fit in the academic environment. The ways in which higher education institutions regulate access and structure university life contribute to drop out processes and unequal pathways based on the social background of students. Following Coulon, we conclude by arguing that higher education institutions should develop systemic approaches that commit their structure and personnel to the goal of developing a “pedagogy of affiliation” aimed at fostering—particularly among students from underprivileged backgrounds—the cognitive, social and practical skills needed to prosper in higher education.
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