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This essay aims to analyse the
challenges that students from disadvantaged backgrounds face in their
university experience. This segment will explain the structure of this essay.
Section 1.1, which will concisely introduce the topic. Section 2 is split into
4 sectors consisting of financial barriers affecting circumstances, academic
performance, retention rates and social integration. Section 3 will look at
lack of support from family and friends Section 4 will explore the lack of
knowledge of support services. Finally, Section 5 will conclude on the
challenges that students face.

Kennedy (1997) Defines
Widening Participation as “increasing access to learning and providing
opportunities for success and progression to a much wider cross-section of the
population than now” (Kennedy, 1997 cited in Beckley, 2014, p. 2).
Widening participation (WP) aims to target students from disadvantaged
backgrounds. Disadvantaged students consist of the ethnic minority, those with
disabilities, immigrants, and young people leaving care. Alongside
first-generation students, low-income, and low-participating neighbourhoods.
Those students coming from these backgrounds are identified as disadvantages as
they are under-represented in society. The under-representation of these groups
is not only unjust towards the individual but also a dominant cause of skills
shortages which impede the economy’s growth (HEFCE, 2013).

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Today, more than one in three
adults possess a university degree compared to one in 10 adults during mid-60s
(Alexander and Arday, 2015 and David, 2009). However, there are still numerous
disadvantaged students who are still not participating in Higher education
(HE). Higher education is all studies above A-level including foundation,
undergraduate and postgraduate degrees (NAO, 2002). HE brings many benefits to
society such as improved social cohesion, social mobility, social capital,
political stability, economic growth, higher earnings and lessened crime rates
(BIS, 2013). Yet today numerous multi-faceted challenges remain for learners
accessing or partaking higher education. These consist of; socio-economic,
cultural, geographical and psychosocial barriers including finance, social
status, social class, inequality, entry requirements, academic barriers and
educational attainment. Nonetheless, this essay will focus on four key
challenges of finance, motivation, lack of family support and lack of awareness
of support services.

Firstly, one of the key
challenges that students from disadvantaged backgrounds face in their
university experience is financial worries which may arise at the start,
throughout or the end of study (Davies and Elias, 2002) and has been noted as a
cited cause for students discontinuing education (Bourn, 2002; Budlender et al,
2002; NAO, 2007). Thereby a possible explanation for low retention rates for
disadvantaged students. Surrounding factors that include; academic expenses,
living expenditures, tuition fees, commuting, equipment and childcare costs
(Scottish Government, 2009b).

Individuals, especially from
poorer socio-economic backgrounds, face increaser difficulties than traditional
students (Vignoles, 2016). This is supported by Archer et al., (2002) who
claims that students face higher costs and economic difficulties by partaking
in HE than their working-class counterparts. Bourdieu (1986) theory of economic
capital ties in well with the financial difficulties students face especially
from socio-economic backgrounds as their parent’s economic capital reflects on
their education and location. Many students due to parent’s economic capital
benefit from when they are at a school-age giving them that extra support to
access and better their attainment as their parents are able to pay for private
tuition etc. this is not the case for disadvantaged students. The middle class
is more likely to access and afford education, however, the working class will
struggle and this is especially difficult for those living in areas where no universities
are available i.e. South-West Devon. 

Nevertheless, with the
economic capital, you can move out or access other universities as well as
travel further as you have the capital to be able to afford the cost.  parents capital arguably shapes your future
as if you have (economic capital) and can access better education then you
would more likely to choose better rated domains rather than what is available
on your doorstep however this is not the case for all especially the
disadvantaged students because of the financial implications this can cause
them and their families (Bourdieu and Passerson, 1979).  Therefore it can be argued that without
economic capital disadvantaged students are more likely to struggle as it
creates further barriers for them. Including if a student is not able to afford
the equipment they will not adequately be able to produce work to their best
ability which may affect their overall grade.

Financial difficulty can cause
concerns which may stem from further social, personal and economic challenges
for students (Cooke et al., 2004; Brennan et al., 2005). Students are more
likely to prioritize their needs especially surrounding their basic needs. This
is similar to Maslow hierarchy of needs theory where he states that only once
the basic needs are met, other levels (needs) are looked at this applies to
disadvantaged students as if they are struggling financially with rent, food
and bills they are more likely to leave education and work to fill these needs
rather than seek higher levels of needs by carrying on with their education
(Maslow, 2013). Due to circumstances, students may have to undergo employment
thereby affecting their academic performance alongside their university
experience (Callender, 2008; Hunt et al., 2004). This is because as the cost of
living is ascending, tuition fees have risen, grants and loans are simply not
enough to see students through their course of study.

Subsequently, students will
inevitably see the difference their employment has in their academic grades,
thus affecting their motivation. This suggests that employment itself is
another challenge that students face in their university experience, this does
not include any stress or difficulties that they may have at work i.e. workload
which also could impact their ability to study. Employment can be stressful for
any individual and be having other workloads like studying can be a handful
(Dundes and Marx 2006).  Evidence
suggests that due to heavy load of responsibilities, pupils are not able to perform
to their best potential as a result of working i.e. looking after a family
(Metcalf, 2001; Callender and Wilkinson, 2003; Pennell, 2005). Arguably,
financial pressures can lead to further difficulties such as students’ academic
performance but it can affect a student integration within the university
sphere, integration with peers and tutors, and may also impact retention rates.
Besides financial hardships captivate a student’s time and energy affecting
individuals by decreasing their academic achievement, social integrations and
increasing their feelings of alienation and isolation (Bourn, 2002).

An additional challenge that
disadvantaged students may face in their university experience is the limited
support and encouragement from family and friends and if not received students
were less likely to continue their education (Bartels, 1982). Disadvantaged
students are more likely to struggle especially if they are the first in the
family to access HE.

This is because traditional
students are prone to have acquaintance including parents or siblings who have
studied and experienced the university dimension. Therefore they will be better
prepared than their counterparts in many ways including knowing what support is
available, how to access it etc. (Bowl, 2001). This is not the case for the
disadvantaged students who are more likely not having any associate who has
previously experienced university life. These students are less likely to know
about support, advice, and guidance that is available to them (Bowl, 2001).When
a student faces discertanity whilst studying either through personal, academic
or institutional factors they are more likely to turn to their acquaintances
than speak to someone from the university domain. Not only can parent’s
encouragement be a barrier for the student but also the lack of parental
familiarity in education can result to lack of support and encouragement from
the household domain (Stratton, 2007; Gayle et al., 2002). They are more likely
to discourage a student from carrying on with their studies. One can assume
that there is strength to Dyhouse, (2002) claim of a “Multiplier
effect” to HE, meaning that if one person of an extended family attends
and has had a pleasant experience they are most likely to advocate HE to family
and friends.

Research also implies that the
extent of parental education, the more likelihood that students will accomplish
in their study (Martinez, 2009). This indicates that Universities in order to
widen participation further ought to do more to ensure that first-timers have a
pleasant experience. As they will most likely to promote HE especially to their
children who then breaks the tradition of first in the family to encounter HE.
Accordingly, students when undergoing certain difficulties may not feel they
are inadequately supported both at home and at university, hence may decide to
retract their studies rather than discuss their concerns. Lack of support from
family and friends creates challenges for disadvantaged students by impacting
an individual’s motivation, achievement leading to a negative experience at the

A further challenge that
disadvantaged students may face is lack of knowledge of services and support
that is available to them. This potentially may hinder them in many ways including
their attainment and retention progression. When students are facing
difficulties they are more likely to face distress as they cannot find
solutions thereby the lack of awareness of services is arguably another
challenge that student is facing (Hunt and Eisenburg, 2010).

Traditional students are more
likely to be aware of available support as they have parents or siblings who
have had a degree so they have an advantage compared to non-traditional
students. As a result, it can be argued that disadvantaged students are facing
inequality of resources being distributed. Bourdieu (1994) outlines four
species of capital which interlink habitus these include; cultural, social,
symbolic and economic cultural. Class determines cultural capital and through
habitus and fields your environment is constructed, where habitus would be a
central field which are social spaces that dominant groups within society
inhibiting a form of power and therefore produces power capital in order for
the system to work.

Bourdieu argues, middle class
due to their ‘cultural capital’ either through an individual’s knowledge,
parent’s academic background or the connection may have an upper-hand than the
working class. Therefore Cultural capital is not equally circulated through
class structure hence accounting for class disparities and inequalities in
educational attainment (Bourdieu, 1984). Upper-class backgrounds have
advantages of being socialised in dominant cultures as groups can convert their
capital to gain a better standing in society, for example, an individual can
gain an academic qualification and change their cultural capital to economic
capital. He identified habitus as a physical state in which capital is
collocated in an individual. Non-traditional students are less likely to have
gained from advantaged networks of social and cultural capital, including those
who provide informal advice surrounding learning through family and friend
associates and intergeneration HE participation (Tamsin Hinton-Smith, YEAR).

If disadvantaged students are
unaware of the available support and services and how to access them they are
more likely to struggle emotionally and academically, become de-motivated, and
inevitably impacting on their academic progression, their confidence and
motivation levels (REAP). Student support services include wellbeing services,
academic writing support, counselling services, mentoring. Agreeing with Davies
(2013) and Slack (2012) it can be argued that support and guidance are
available however not targeting disadvantaged students and by doing this there
is more likely that it would improve retention rates.

Studies show that
under-represented students were less likely to access student support services,
however when that were accessed it bettered student outcomes drastically
(Naylor et al., 2013; Zepke and Leach, 2005).

Another challenge
disadvantaged student’s face is lack of social and academic integration.
Non-traditional students have felt ‘disorientated’, ‘frightened’ and
‘apprehensive’ on their initial experience of university (Hinton-Smith, 2012)
Without this integration a learners academic success and university experience
learners struggle to feel a sense of belonging thereby impacting their social
integration within the university (Hussey and Smith, 2010; Tinto, 2012) which
may lead to withdrawal (Deberad et al, 2004). Whilst universities are ensuring
disadvantaged students are supported with admissions in HEI the inequalities
faced with academic integration are not tackled.

Students need to feel the
sense of belonging from the social and academic perspective in order to feel
welcome and part of the university domain it can be argued that without the
interaction from the students towards the university will bear on their
university experience (Tinto, 1975; 1987). Circumstances and responsibilities
i.e. employment lead to students missing out on lectures, seminars, engagement
with peers and tutors, not integrating by building wider relationships and
networks etc. (Clegg and Rowland, 2010). Overall this will have a huge impact
on the student’s integration as they will not feel part of the university.
Therefore it can be suggested that educational policies must ensure students
from all social strata’s are effectively able to integrate into HE.

There is a strength to
Bourdieu (1986) claim that the distribution of cultural, economic and social
capital all interplay with each other and the circulation of these capitals
regulate opportunities for success for practices. Similar to cultural capital
habitus is conveyed from within the home. Whilst cultural capital is linked to
knowledge habitus is a series of attitudes and values and the dominant class
holds the dominant habitus (Bourdieu, 1977) Bourdieu (1990) claims that when an
individual enters a new field, habitus is transformed. Bourdieu and Passeron
(1977) maintain that the middle-class are socialised into the dominant culture,
therefore, HE is part of their habitus. This is not the same for the working
class especially for those who are the first in the family to enter HE. Working
class students have felt like ‘fish in water’ especially as they have not had
the same habitus as the middle class (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1979)

Lastly, one more challenge
that disadvantaged students may face in their university experience is
motivation and confidence as to how a student feels at the university will
inevitably impact their experience at the university. Many students have noted
the first year is a ‘vulnerable time’ for disadvantaged students (Thomas, 2002;
Troxel and Cutright, 2008) especially to socially integrate and build up
confidence, motivation and see themselves able to successfully complete their
study. However it can be argued that at any point of their study students may
lose confidence and motivation to study, this could be through internal or
external factors which may not only affect their academic performance but might
also change their viewpoint and whether to carry on in education.

Therefore it is essential for
student’s confidence and motivation is monitored throughout the duration of the
course. There is a strength to Murphy and Roopchand’s (2003) claim that
adequate support is crucial especially for those who lack self-esteem and
academic confidence as without this support it can affect their experience as
well as academic attainment. Many disadvantaged students are reluctant to apply
to HE as a result of lack of academic confidence, then again students are still
concerned about this challenge whilst at the university. Students have stated
that they feel like ‘fraud’ ‘inadequate ‘and ‘fear of being found out’ of not
being academically bright than their counterparts (Wisker, 1996; Jackson,

Disadvantaged students may
lack confidence and self-esteem not only because they are in a new environment,
increased workload but also they may feel out of place compared to traditional
students academically as well as socially. Academically they may feel that they
are not ‘clever’ enough or not cool enough for the traditional university
lifestyle. It could be said that these issues itself can become challenges for
students. Not achieving well in assignments and exams, and receiving negative
feedback also have a direct impact on a student’s self-esteem and confidence
(Baumeister and Tice, 1985). Alongside one negative feedback is more likely to
negative effect on future academic projects (Baumeister and Tice, 1985).


As a result, they are more
likely to lose motivation, feel and accept ‘failure’  especially if this happens on more than one
occasion and by doing this they will be more reluctant to aspire and improve
their attainment. This is supported by Dogson and Wood (1998) who claimed that
those with high self-esteem are more likely to achieve better in the academic
setting and deal with failure than those with low self-esteem and confidence.
Learners who are facing other structural or personal dilemmas may not cope with
added burdens together with the lack of motivation and self-confidence may lead
to withdrawal from the course (Brown and Dutton, 1995). Lack of
confidence/self-esteem and motivation can be seen as challenges for
disadvantaged students as it creates barriers for students affecting their
university experience , personal life and choices as well as academic
performance and if not addressed it can lead up to withdrawal especially if
there are other internal and external barriers involved (Brown and Dutton

Each social class families
have a diverse access to social, cultural and economic resources as anticipated
this effects the child’s entitlement to resources. Logically, individuals with
increased quality resources have higher chances to come from higher status
backgrounds.  Parents’ cultural capital
is strongly linked to parent’s economic capital. Thus affecting the student’s
cultural capital and in return stimulating the individual’s academic
attainment. Erikson and Jonsson 1996, Mayer 2001 have argued that those who
lack the cultural capital of the institution i.e. university, lack the
resources and social capital including networks and support to attain it will
most likely encounter an educational loss. 

Bourdieu (1977) maintains that
higher social classes (traditional students) are more advantaged as education
is easily accessible for them than the lower classes (Disadvantaged students),
this is a result of the habitus of the lower class is very limited and does not
entail educational aspirations. Therefore whether an individual succeeds or
fails depends on the class you were born into. Yet Reay et al (2009) disagree
that even though habitus is ‘internalised’ and assimilated early on it is still
able to be changed this is as an individual change as they grow and confront
the outside world their socialisation, as a result, modifies and adapts.


In conclusion, even today
numerous institutional, situational and dispositional challenges remain those
students from disadvantaged backgrounds face in their university experience. It
is quite alarming that even supposing WP has been effective in widening access,
it has still not been competent in combating the many inequalities students
face today (HEFCE, 2013). Still, it is arguably, that as there are numerous
barriers that students face thus has resulted in it being difficult and so
time-consuming to eradicate.  Although
this essay touched upon a small proportionate of challenges, there are many
others including; geographical, cultural, structural, socio-economic, financial
and psychosocial challenges that alongside need addressing and tackling in
order to widen participation and access effectively for the under-represented
groups of society.

Through these factors, further
difficulties arise for students that will impact disadvantaged student’s more
than traditional learners whilst in their university experience. It can be said
that one challenge stems from a further challenge and overall all these challenges
hinder retention rates. Though are a lot of widening participation policies are
aiming to combat the inequalities that prevent student from applying to HE it
can be argued that more needs to be done to address the challenges students may
face whilst in their university experience as these barriers can potentially
arise any duration, therefore, it is crucial for universities to engage with
students and monitor their wellbeing, their motivation, their concerns as not
only will these ensure students that support is available alongside improving
retention rates.

Education equality before and
within the university is essential to endorse social fairness and social
justice for every individual. Unfortunately, there is no one fixed solution to
all these challenges and although widening participation is aiming to address
and overcome them for many years and whilst there have been changes in the
proportion of disadvantaged students entering HE, it has still not been
sufficient in combating all structural challenges. Universities should not only
acknowledge and work on obstructions including looking into admission and
transition processes but also the challenges that disadvantaged students may
face whilst in their university experience including making them aware of the
available support and services that they can access and that they may at some
point of their study require.  It must be
understood that there is no one solution to tackle these barriers as each
obstacle will need to be addressed individually. Tackling educational
disadvantage by addressing and monitoring in relation to access to resources,
lack of advice and support is crucial as it hinders student’s chances to
succeed. Chowdry, (2010); Cunha and Heckman (2007); Budd, (2017) mutually claim
that these socio-economic disadvantages do not emerge just from the high-status
universities but in fact prime from education early on. Thus implying barriers
ought to be addressed before, during and after university. However, it can be
argued that the sole responsibility to address these challenges should not be
fundamentally thrown on universities.


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