Living the Dream? Widening Participation in Higher Education and Social Class Mobility

  • Karen E Arm

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Whilst UK policy goes to great lengths to engineer middle class ‘wannabes’
through its arguments of the benefits of higher education participation, little is
known about the experiences of those who do achieve the social mobility
dreams of widening participation. This doctoral research has addressed this
gap by exploring the lived experiences of those who have achieved the
socially mobility goals of the UK widening participation political agenda. That
is, the disproportionate few people from working-class backgrounds who get a
professional graduate job. Yet rather than focus on these measurable aspects of social mobility via higher education, the study has used narrative inquiry to instead focus on the meaning attached to this experience by eight individuals themselves. In doing so I have challenged the taken-for-granted policy assumption that social elevation is a straightforward and universal good for those who achieve it via Widening Participation in Higher Education and instead turned a critical eye on the subjectivities of socially mobile graduates working in and outside of academia. Drawing on the less well-known side of Bourdieusian theory, my study explores how the socially mobile manage their cleft habitus over the life course, the conditions that give rise to this and the reflexivity involved. In doing so, it makes a distinct contribution to knowledge by demonstrating the complexity of the cleft in contexts beyond higher education and the nuanced ways that this is intersubjectively managed. The thesis ends by sharing some novel examples of the socially mobile using their cleft habitus to challenge class doxa in their lives and discusses the implications that this raises for higher education practice itself.
Date of Award25 Jan 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorLeon P Tikly (Supervisor) & Lisa Lucas (Supervisor)

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