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Reports Part of series: Education and democracy & History of education: BERA Brian Simon Fund research reports

Far away from the ivory tower

The impact of university education on disadvantaged people & their communities

Funded by the Brian Simon fellowship grant, this research project on the topic ‘history of education’ explored the perspectives of students, staff and graduates in relation to their experience of higher education, with a specific focus on those who were first-in-family (by generation) to attend university. The research was underpinned by five objectives:

  1. To showcase the story of university education ‘for the poor’ and people who have a background of disadvantage.
  2. To understand how a university education affects the lives of those from disadvantaged backgrounds and first-in-family to university.
  3. To use Plymouth Marjon University’s extensive archive to interrogate the university’s history and to compare this to contemporary educational practice.
  4. To highlight the links between social justice and Plymouth Marjon University’s values of humanity, ambition, curiosity and independence.
  5. To critique current practices in access to, and participation in, university education with respect to widening participation, social mobility and educational disadvantage.

Report summary

This report presents the findings of the Plymouth Marjon University (PMU) Brian Simon Research Project, which explored the experiences of individuals in higher education (HE), with a specific emphasis on those who were the first in their family to attend university. The project, conducted by a multidisciplinary team, aimed to explore the impact of HE on individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, utilising artefacts from the university’s extensive archive to scaffold discussions.


  1. Lifelong learning: testimonies from first-in-family students illustrated how HE can serve as a catalyst for lifelong learning and social mobility.
  2. Feminist perspectives of inclusion: testimonies revealed the structural barriers faced by women in academia, which highlights the ongoing struggle for gender equality in HE.
  3. Space and places of safety: testimonies revealed university as a refuge for individuals navigating personal challenges, underscoring the importance of nurturing and supportive educational environments.
  4. Poverty and the working-class: participants’ testimonies provided insights into the unique obstacles confronting students from working-class backgrounds and suggest the importance of systemic change to ensure inclusivity and equitable support.
  5. Kindness of practice: testimonies showed the transformative impact of compassionate teaching practices on students’ academic and personal development, and emphasise the significance of supportive pedagogical approaches.


The research team intends to disseminate findings through various channels, including academic articles, blog series, symposiums and exhibitions. Additionally, the report outlines several policy recommendations aimed at promoting inclusivity, addressing structural barriers and fostering a more equitable HE system.


The report makes a number of recommendations for future research focusing on contemporary challenges in HE, such as mental health, financial burdens and accessibility. These recommendations could inform policies and practices that promote inclusivity and support for all students.

In summary, this research project contributes to the ongoing dialogue on the role of HE in promoting social mobility and equity, and emphasises the need for continued efforts to create an inclusive and supportive environment for all individuals pursuing HE.


Profile picture of Miles Smith
Miles Smith, Mr

Associate Dean of Education at Plymouth Marjon University

I am Associate Dean of Education and Programme Lead for Primary Education BA (Hons) at Plymouth Marjon University. Having worked in the English Language Teaching sector and Primary sector, I have diverse experience of education in both UK and...

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Tracy Ann Hayes, Dr

Senior Lecturer & PGR coordinator, School of Education at Plymouth Marjon University

Dr Tracy Ann Hayes is Senior Lecturer and Post Graduate Research Co-ordinator in the School of Education at Plymouth Marjon University, where she leads the Youth & Community Work Programmes. A qualified youth worker and community development...

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Mark Leather, Dr

Associate Professor at Plymouth Marjon University

Dr Mark Leather is a co-convenor of BERA’s Nature, Outdoor Learning and Play (NOLAP) special interest group (SIG). He is an associate professor of education, course tutor for the MRes in Outdoor Education/Outdoor Learning, and programme leader...

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Katie Major-Smith

PhD Candidate at Plymouth Marjon University

Katie Major-Smith is a PhD candidate at Plymouth Marjon University and the Research and Evaluation Lead for UKRI NetworkPlus in Circular Fashion and Textiles at the University of Plymouth. She is a mixed methods researcher, and her research...

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Alison Milner, Mrs

Programme Lead for the MA Education at Plymouth Marjon University

My specialist areas are creative methodologies and professional identity. I am particularly interested in the impact identity and academic identity has on professional teaching in Higher Education. My current research adopts a creative...

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Gil Fewings, Ms

Archivist at Plymouth Marjon University

Gil Fewings is the archivist for Plymouth Marjon University (PMU), an archaeologist and former occupational therapist. Prior to her role at PMU she worked with a wide range of archives and museums across the UK, running projects connected to the...