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“Proving others wrong”: how working class students defied the odds to attend an elite university

Tamara Thiele/ Debbi Stanistreet

The proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to ‘elite’ universities in England has remained worryingly flat in the past decade, despite millions of pounds being invested each year to widen access in Higher Education (HE) (OFFA, 2016). These students, who are more likely to live in disadvantaged areas, attend poor performing schools and come from families where no one has previously attended university, are 6.3 times less likely to enter one of these top-tier universities compared to their more affluent peers (HEFCE, 2015; OFFA, 2016). There are however, variations in the educational outcomes of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and our recent study (Thiele et al., 2017) suggests factors that may account for these variations.

Focussing on the educational trajectories of 13 high-achieving students from working-class backgrounds, we explored how they beat the multiple odds against them in being successfully admitted to an ‘elite’ Russell Group university. Their narratives depict various sources of disadvantage associated with material hardship, schooling, peer groups and in many cases, unstable family circumstances, which could have prevented them from achieving. These factors, which appeared to be strongly linked to their working-class identities and subjective perceptions of social class, affected their motivations and how they engaged with education in both positive and negative ways.

For instance, though several individuals alluded to low expectations and negative group stereotypes as being barriers and significant sources of frustration, they frequently described being motivated to dispel these identity-related constructs and prove others wrong. Melissa, for example, described her motivations for working hard, achieving high grades and pursuing HE as follows:

Wanting to do better than what they thought ’cause there is a lot of stereotypes about like, people on benefits and … I wanted to prove that just because my parents were on them, that I wouldn’t necessarily be on them myself.”

While individuals’ motivations and circumstances varied widely, all students believed that working hard, achieving high grades and attending university, was a means to improving their current circumstances. As explained by Lauren when describing her familial circumstances:

“University was my getaway plan because I really didn’t enjoy it at home.”

However, despite being strongly motivated to succeed and maintain some level of control over their educational trajectories, this was not always possible due to the challenging social situations many of them discussed (e.g. domestic abuse, family instability, financial hardship, isolation and bullying at school). In many cases, these factors contributed to their lack of active involvement at school/college, periods of withdrawal and poor attendance. Furthermore, though many individuals were motivated to be the first in their families to attend university, they also described disadvantages associated with this. In particular, several students received limited or no career guidance from their care-givers and teachers, and two individuals described not knowing about university until year 12.

Image of the Quadrangle, University of Liverpool

Overall, these findings highlight a few of the many barriers that working-class students have to overcome during their educational trajectories to HE. The identification of these barriers is important given that they likely prevent many other disadvantaged, yet academically able, students from attending HE. Our findings underline the importance of providing non-traditional students with guidance and support from an early age, so as not to restrict the opportunities available to them. Outreach activities play an important role in this regard, but these can only go so far without addressing the wider social and structural factors at the roots of inequality. Moreover, it is important to consider evidence which suggests that working-class students are more likely than their affluent peers to perform poorly at university and drop-out (e.g. Crawford, 2014). Hence these individuals may be less likely to reap the greater financial gains and future prospects that attending university often affords. As such, to truly advance social mobility, it is important that socio-economically disadvantaged students receive ongoing support throughout their time at university, as the challenges they face do not end when universities open their doors to them.


Higher Education Funding Council for England. (2015). Causes of differences in student outcomes. (HEFCE report 2015). Bristol: HEFCE.

Office for Fair Access (2016). Strategic guidance: developing your 2017-18 access agreement (OFFA Report: 2016:02). London: OFFA.

Thiele, T., Pope, D., Singleton, A., Snape, D. & Stanistreet, D. (2017), Experience of disadvantage: The influence of identity on engagement in working class students’ educational trajectories to an elite university. Br Educ Res J, 43: 49–67.

Crawford, C. (2014). Socio-economic differences in university outcomes in the UK: drop-out, degree completion and degree class (No. IFS Working Paper No. 14/31.).