Helping working class females find their place at university

Vanessa Todman, Senior Behavioural Insights Advisor |

Recently, there has been a lot of interest in the impact of working-class identity on the education of white boys (See Eliza Kozman’s blog and our 2016 commissioned LKMco report). However, there is less research on whether, and how, a ‘working class’ identity may affect female students. King’s is conducting a set of focus groups with students who identify as white, working class and female, to start to bridge this gap. This research project was primarily to understand this group’s journey to university, but we’ve learnt a lot about their experience while they are here too. One of the main things we’ve learnt from this research is that they are struggling to find people ‘like them’.

Being ‘working class’ is a subjective identity

The first difficulty in organising this kind of research is that, unlike ‘white’ and ‘female’ (although there are nuances to both) being ‘working class’ is not consistently defined[i];  that’s because it’s not just socio-economic status, or postcode, it’s an identity. Class identity is different things to different people, and it changes over time, and therefore difficult to spot in administrative data. I identify as working-class, but mainly relative to the people around me, and now I’ve mostly lost my South London accent I’m not sure how I’d demonstrate my working-class credentials.

Because of this complexity, we contacted a broad group of white female students and asked them which social class they felt they’d belonged to at school[ii]. We got some interesting responses, demonstrating the fluidity[iii] of the concept, such as students saying that although economically their family were working class they felt they had middle class ‘attitudes’, and students who at school had actually thought they were quite well off, until university had given them a new perspective.

 “It was when I entered university I realised just how working class I really was.”

It can be hard to be your ‘authentic self’

I have been humbled by the obstacles the women we’ve spoken to so far have overcome to study and succeed at King’s. These women were bright and resilient, but some were struggling with an absent support network, while others’ support networks didn’t have the finances or knowledge to help. Often, students were breaking new ground, with very little support and a lot of pressure. They all described juggling family and work responsibilities (e.g. sick parents, sending money home, or working night shifts) along with their normal studies. Many openly described the pressure as impacting on their mental health.

Many (but not all) had received extra funding, but this didn’t stop them needing to work part-time as bar staff and cleaners. Others had deferred to save up and were now watching their savings dwindle. Though mostly they were happy with their decision and the rich education they were receiving, many hadn’t realised how high the cost of living and studying in London would be—for example, how rare it would be for them to have the money for a coach ticket home.

“I’d go to uni and I’d just treat myself to a can of coke and a muffin, and that would be like £4, [..] And then the bus […] that’s £3 […] add that all up, it’s like £10 a day, and if you’re doing that five times a week, that’s  £50 a week. I had not budgeted for that.”

I was particularly struck by how money, or lack of it, came up in every conversation about their student experience. It influenced how they spent their spare time, their diet, where they lived, even their friends.

“Sometimes I’ve lied about working because I can’t afford to do what they’re doing […] So it’s kind of been a bit difficult when they say, ‘oh we’re going to this, it’s like £5’ and I don’t have £5 this month.”

Lack of money made them feel different, alienated; they told us their friends didn’t understand. A lot of the students we spoke to didn’t know anyone else working part-time, or thought they were the only ones around them struggling financially. That feeling of difference was leading to them hiding their lived experience in order to fit in. Studies suggest that kind of identity concealment can be very stressful for working-class students. Feeling they must alter how they come across to appear the same as other students can lead to conflicting identities and feeling they are being untrue to their real selves[iv].

When dealing with this kind of pressure you need a strong social network

This research has really underlined to me the importance of social capital: having a network to go to for advice and support. These were students who sounded very alone: unable to visit family, signing up for counselling services, leaving early to commute home, working in the evenings. Students who have to decide between paying for food and travel aren’t even considering socialising, so where are their opportunities to build their networks?

They were in different years studying different courses, but all felt they didn’t really know the people on their course. Some were living “with randoms” to save on rent, others were in halls but didn’t really talk to their flatmates with because they had nothing in common.

“This year I’ve thrown myself more into society things […] This year I’ve got my group [of friends] which I think has really helped, I’ve thrown myself more into different things. […] So overall this has been a lot more positive.”

We spend a lot of time researching how to encourage students to make friends and to join societies, so it was good to hear students tell us what a difference social interaction makes to them. I feel even more certain now that we’re on the right track.

We need to help working-class students find each other

Just by getting these women into a room together, we’d done a positive thing. Although it’s important to meet different people, it can be nice sometimes to talk to people who are ‘like’ you. Just as we struggled to identify them, it would also probably have been almost impossible for them to identify each other. Lack of money wasn’t defining what they were doing, but what they weren’t doing, and that’s hard to broadcast to others, especially if you feel you need to hide it to fit in. You could feel the energy in the room just from giving them a chance to share similar experiences.

They went out the room talking to each other, and they started to network, older students telling younger students about the opportunities they’d uncovered. I’m hopeful that a couple of friendships were forged in that room. I’m looking forward to bringing more of these students together, and to be honest, I’m getting a bit of a boost from hearing stories that are similar to mine too.

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[i]  LKMCO (2016) The underrepresentation of White Working-class Boys, available at: https://www.lkmco.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/The-underrepresentation-of-white-working-class-boys-in-higher-education-baars-et-al-2016.pdf

[ii]  We asked about school because research suggests some consider higher education itself to be a marker of being “middle-class”, and what they identified as because class identity is subjective.

[iii] Bauman, Z (2004) “Identity”, Polity Press

[iv] Granfield, R. (1991) “Making it By Faking it: Working-class students in an elite Academic environment” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography Vol 20 No 3 October 331- 351 Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/089124191020003005

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