University study is designed for the privileged – students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer

When you picture a university student, you probably think of someone who recently finished school, who studies full-time, who stays in student accommodation and who is able to prioritise their studies over any other demands on their time – and you’re not alone in doing so. These are the “imagined students” that UK universities still largely cater to, and around whom their practices are often organised. Our recent study, however, found that students who don’t fit this picture are losing out.

Often, these students are less privileged than the typical “imagined student”. They may have been attracted through widening participation programmes, which aim to bring in students from groups that may not traditionally have gone to university. They might have dependants or family obligations, and may need to work alongside their studies.

Current university practices limit the ability of these students to engage with their studies.

Time constraints

Our research has broken down the ways students can be excluded into issues of time and issues of space.

University teaching timetables are largely structured around a typical working day, with contact hours scheduled for lectures, seminars, practical sessions and tutorials. Students are expected to contribute additional hours of independent study, adding up to 35 hours a week. However, many students registered as full-time are also in paid work. For debt-averse working-class students this is seen as particularly necessary.

Working on top of full-time study eats into the amount of time available for students to focus on their studies. While universities acknowledge the realities of student employment, they tend to regard this as a choice on the part of the student, and consider it to be a lower priority that the student’s studies.

These students live in halls of residence - but not all students do. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Cultural and religious practices and other community obligations can also conflict with a student’s time commitment to their studies. The university calendar is typically structured around the Christian calendar, with breaks over Easter and Christmas. This means that it tends to be other religions, other cultures and other ethnicities for whom this presents a problem. For the imagined white, Christian or non-religious British student, these issues are invisible.

Additionally, it is more likely to be students from widening participation backgrounds who have caring responsibilities toward children, siblings, or unwell or elderly extended family members. These responsibilities also demand time, and can limit the control these students have over their study hours. On the part of the university, however, students are still implicitly expected to be able to prioritise their studies over other demands on their time.

The reality for many students who do not conform to the picture of the “imagined student” is that this is simply not possible, or desirable. Circumstances, competing commitments, and issues related to identity, limit these students’ abilities to see themselves foremost as a student.

Different space

The traditional view of studenthood in the UK involved leaving home and staying in accommodation with other students. This places students close to the university campus. They have access to facilities that support their studies, and can form a supportive community with peers engaged in similar practices.

However, an increasing proportion of students now live at home and commute in to university, which can be tiring, costly and time consuming.

University study can pose obstacles for those who do not resemble the typical ‘imagined student’. Robin Nieuwenkamp/Shutterstock

While living at home can provide a source of support, for many students it also leads to demands on their time and energies. They are expected to help out at home, with extended family, or by earning money or providing labour to the family business. From the descriptions provided by the students in our study, this is similar to what is known as a kinship tax (or black tax, in a South African context).

This means that the student is expected to provide for their extended family (or kinship group) in return for the sacrifices made by the family that allowed the student to enter higher education. The student becomes so burdened by family obligations, work, and the demands of commuting that they cannot assemble the resources they need – time, energy, headspace – to succeed academically.

The challenge for higher education is to embrace flexibility in a way that facilitates the success of these students, rather than adding to their already considerable obstacles.

New challenges

The coronavirus pandemic has led to many universities around the world shifting to online teaching and learning. This offers a measure of flexibility, which might assist those students dealing with competing priorities. However, it brings challenges of its own. Many poorer students lack the resources (up-to-date computing equipment, stable broadband, quiet study space) to participate in online lectures and tutorials, creating potential barriers to participation.


Read more: Coronavirus: universities are shifting classes online – but it's not as easy as it sounds


Additionally, flexibility may make it harder to carve out time for studies. Scheduled on-campus blocs of time allow students to focus, which they may not be able to do when faced with the immediacy of children or younger siblings not attending school. Many students are working in retail, meaning they may be their family’s only source of income as parents are unable to work. The risk is that the pandemic exacerbates existing inequities and makes it even harder for these students to engage with their studies.

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