Does class spell success at university?

Issue date: 25 January 2011

How do students from different backgrounds fare at different universities in the same city? How are their needs met and what 'added value' do universities provide?

These are some of the key questions being asked in a unique study by the University of the West of England and the University of Bristol. Given current concerns that the rise in tuition fees and cuts to university funding could deter poorer students from attending universities that charge the highest fees, the findings will be of interest to prospective students and universities alike.

The study will compare the experiences of 'traditional' and 'non-traditional' students and look at the benefits they receive from attending two very different universities: the University of the West of England, a popular 'new' university with a strong regional focus and the University of Bristol, an elite research institution.

The project, which has received funding of £280,000 from the Leverhulme Trust, will follow 80 students through their three years of undergraduate study. Students at both universities from working-class and middle-class backgrounds (as defined by accepted class definitions) who are studying the same subjects will be asked about their experiences through questionnaires, interviews and diaries over the three-year period. Participants were identified as 'working class' or 'middle class' by an initial questionnaire using factors such as parental occupation, levels of education and post code.

This is the first study of its kind to compare students' experiences at an elite university and a new university in the same city. Academics from both institutions will work together on the project, known as the 'Paired Peers' study.

Professor Harriet Bradley, University of Bristol, said, "The overall objective is to understand the impact of higher education within two different university environments and to enhance our understanding of how attending university may either contribute to increased social mobility or reinforce existing patterns of class reproduction. The study should highlight conditions which can help improve levels of social mobility."

UWE's Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker explained,"We want to find out how students spend their time, how they move around the city and how they use the resources at university. Through interviews and questionnaires we will track how each student experiences university, and look at the way they use the facilities and resources available to them, such as use of new technology. For example, we will find out how they engage with their studies, whether they take up additional opportunities for networking with students on their course, whether they get involved in clubs and societies, and how they 'mobilise' these opportunities – do they make the most of their time at university to develop to their full potential, and use this on their CV to enhance their future choices and careers.

"We want to find out how two different universities enable their students to succeed, and what the benefits are for different types of student in each institution. We hope to learn lessons that will enable us to give practical advice to students so they can make the most of their time at university – regardless of their background. We hope also that universities will take on board the different approaches and background that students bring to university, so that the experience they have is the best that it can be."

Professor Bradley added,"We want to work very closely with our participating students to help us gain a better understanding of student cultures and the choices and dilemmas faced by these young people as they pursue their studies. We aim to draw on their own creativity and talents through activities such as taking photographs of student life or contributing to our website, and we also hope that our drama recruits will take the lead in presenting a dramatised account of the student experience."

Further information:

The study covers a range of subjects (accounting and economics, biological sciences, drama, English, engineering, geography and environment, history, law, politics, psychology and sociology).

A cohort of students was recruited in autumn 2010 for initial interview, but the research team is still looking for additional participants in the following subjects: biological sciences, drama, engineering, history and geography. Please

The research team consists of Professor Harriet Bradley (University of Bristol), Professor Ann-Marie Bathmaker (UWE), Nicola Ingram (University of Bristol), Dr Jody Mellor (University of Bristol), Dr Richard Waller (UWE) and Dr Tony Hoare (University of Bristol).

FFI: Jane Kelly or Mary Price, Press Officers


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