Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Social Class, Identity and the 'Good' Student: Negotiating University Culture

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Education

Social Class, Identity and the 'Good' Student: Negotiating University Culture

Article excerpt

Through the use of narrative portraits this paper discusses social class and identity, as working-class university students perceive them. With government policy encouraging wider participation rates from under-represented groups of people within the university sector, working-class students have found themselves to be the objects of much research. Working-class students are, for the most part, studied as though they are docile bodies, unable to participate in the construction of who they are, and working-class accounts of university experiences are quite often compared to the middle-class norms. This paper explores how working-class students see themselves within the university culture. Working-class students' voices and stories form the focus of this paper, in which the language of 'disadvantage' is dealt with and the ideologies of class identity explored.


social class

higher education


working-class students

non-traditional student

barriers to participation


In a postmodern and post-Marxist world, theories about class have become increasingly complex and conflicting, and there has been a shift away from using class as a theoretical framework for research (Calhoun, 1996; McGregor, 1997; Skeggs, 1997; Weedon, 1999). While social class has historically been a 'central theme within educational and sociological theorising, research and analysis' (Archer et al., 2003), writers such as Milner (1999, p. 7) suggest a shift away from class as a theoretical framework has occurred because of 'an increasing preoccupation with the cultural effects of other kinds of cultural difference--gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality'. As hooks (2000) says, class nowadays is the 'uncool subject'. In her view, 'It's the subject that makes us all tense, nervous, uncertain about where we stand' (p. vii). In these circumstances, it should be hardly surprising that class analysis of our social and political institutions is often dismissed as 'dogmatic, ideological, or deluded' (Aronowitz, 2003, p. 18).Accordingly, matters of class power are 'sanitized and its powerful effects on the life chances of working-class students is denuded or made invisible' (McLaren & Farahmandpur, 2005a, p. 8).

In response, we share McGregor's (1997, p. 2) view that it is 'impossible to understand Australia or the lives of Australians without reference to class'. Throughout this study, the category of class resonated repeatedly for us as we spoke to students about their lives and experience. We acknowledge that issues associated with social class and access to education 'play an important role in ensuring either the reproduction of (middle-class) privileges or (working-class) disadvantages' (Archer et al., 2003, p. 5). McGregor (1997, p. 39) sums this up:

   Schools in working-class suburbs, attended largely by working-class
   children, tend to channel their pupils into working-class jobs; the
   proportion of children who leave school as soon as they can is
   high; expectations of going to university are low; as a
   consequence, few working-class boys, and even fewer working-class
   girls, complete a university education.

Thus, while class may have become a part of our cultural and political 'unconsciousness' (Aronowitz, 2003, p. 25) we want to argue that it remains a salient and powerful category in understanding the cultural processes of advantaging and disadvantaging of students in education. Skeggs (1997, p. 7) explains

   [Class is] a major feature of subjectivity, a historical
   specificity and part of a struggle over access to resources and
   ways of being. Class ... is central to us all, even if we do not
   feel impeded by it or choose not to recognize it, or to avoid it
   through disidentifications and dissimulations.

In a modest way we want to contribute to this conversation by exploring the stories of a small group of working-class students on a regional university campus in Western Australia. …

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