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Cutting 'rough diamonds' : first generation students in higher education

Hope, Julia (2014) Cutting 'rough diamonds' : first generation students in higher education. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Chichester. An accredited institution of the University of Southampton. (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:48144)

The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided.


Cutting rough diamonds provides an insight into higher education (HE) participation, which has become an important focus for policy debate and research. This is the result of ongoing attempts to expand the HE system in line with wider policies promoting a ‘knowledge economy’ and resulting from policy concerns with equity and inclusion. Previous research focuses largely on demographics, academic performance, and persistence rates of first generation students. Studies in the field of student experience, learning approaches and transitions have examined the relation between learning and contextual factors. The focus of this inquiry is significant as it focuses on first generation students' experience and the ways they cope with change (transition to HE) at a personal and academic level. The term ‘rough diamond’ is the title for this thesis, as it is redolent with metaphor that encapsulates many of the discourses that position the students within the inquiry.

To develop a clear and holistic picture of the participants’ experiences of higher education, fifty semi-structured interviews were undertaken. Grounded theory techniques were the initial method of data gathering and analysis. Phenomenographic techniques were later employed for a deeper exploration of variation in the group and to generate new knowledge in an under-researched area. The use of grounded theory and phenomenographic approaches highlighted the complexities in the experiences of these first generation students. They showed the individual nature of those experiences, set as they were in a highly politicised and dynamic field. The inquiry traced how these students moved into and took up their place at a single case study university site, ‘The Centre’ and how they engaged in their first semester of study of an undergraduate degree. The participants discussed their experiences transitioning to university and the issues and challenges associated with their new environment.

In the light of the evidence gathered and a review of existing scholarship, a detailed exploration and theorisation is offered which draws on the theoretical concepts of Archer (2000, 2003, 2007), Bourdieu (1980, 1984, 1986) and Weick (2001, 1993, 1995, 2009). These have been combined to provide a conceptual theoretical framework that helps to illuminate the complexity of the transition process undertaken by these students. The research findings demonstrate that the point of registration at higher education institutions does not in itself constitute a successful student transition to university. The findings suggest that underpinning the students' experiences of transition is a complex interplay between becoming, being and achieving as a higher education student and their own cultural and social identity. The interplay between university life and personal circumstance is not easily or simply reconciled or identified.

A psychosocial approach examined the premise that the interaction and transaction between individuals and structures is essential to develop a holistic understanding of what shapes first generation students’ experiences and choices. Insights for policy makers, policy researchers, higher education managers and lecturers are offered with regard to provision, transition and subsequent enactment of agency of the first generation students. This led to a model of the ‘process of transition’ to illustrate how these students navigate crossing the cultures of home and university. The model could help retention of first generation students in a competitive market place for post 1992 universities who rely on these students for their intake.

The thesis offers insights that could inform universities of strategies and practices that may aid widening participation students to successfully make the transition to university life, and ultimately to graduation. The inquiry invites further investigation of current higher education policy priorities for first generation students.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Uncontrolled keywords: transition to higher education, phenomenographic, widening participation, achievement, grounded theory, psychsocial
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
L Education
Divisions: Divisions > Directorate of Education > Centre for the Study of Higher Education
Funders: Organisations -1 not found.
Depositing User: Julia Hope
Date Deposited: 30 Apr 2015 10:43 UTC
Last Modified: 17 Aug 2022 10:58 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

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