About Paired Peers

Objectives

The overall objective is to understand the impact of higher education within two different university environments and to enhance our understanding of how attending university may either contribute to increased social mobility or reinforce existing patterns of class reproduction. The study should help highlight conditions that can help improve levels of social mobility.

Research Questions

  • What are the differences between the experiences of 'traditional' and 'non-traditional' students’ in two universities, one ‘old’ and one ‘new’?
  • Is it possible to identify the negative and positive experiences these groups of students and how do these may change over a three-year degree?
  • How do these groups of students compare in terms of educational outcomes and preparation for entry into the world of work?
  • What are the relative impacts on experience and achievement of different class backgrounds, degree courses, places of study and geographical locations?
  • How do different forms of capital (economic, social and cultural) impact on student performance and subsequent preparation for entry to the labour market, and how are these capitals valued, accumulated, deployed or discounted?

Project Design

The Paired Peers longitudinal research project is tracking the fortunes of 40 pairs of undergraduate students from different socio-economic backgrounds over their three years of study at two British universities from October 2010 to July 2013.

The ‘pairing’ of the project title works on three levels: Firstly, we have selected two universities in the same English city of Bristol. The University of Bristol is a ‘Russell Group’ elite research institution with approximately 10,000 undergraduates from across the country; the University of the West of England has almost 26,000 students, generally lower entrance requirements and many students hail from within the South West region.

Secondly, we have matched students across subject disciplines. We aimed to cover a range of subjects but were somewhat constrained by the variety of courses on offer at both universities. Thus we have ten broad disciplines represented: Biology; Drama; Economics/Accounting/Finance; Engineering; English; Geography; History; Law; Politics; Psychology and Sociology.

Finally, from each discipline we recruited two students from ‘traditional’ university-going backgrounds and two ‘non-traditional’ students, who are in most cases the first in their families to enter Higher Education. As far as possible, we have also attempted to maintain an equal gender balance.

The research examines motivations and routes into HE, academic, economic and social experiences, including the development of career aspirations, and an exploration of the geographical elements of the students’ experience (where students come from, where they live, how they travel to study, the use they make of the city. We will also examine the importance of virtual spaces (access to up-to-date computer technology, use of social network sites) and investigates class differences in this area.

The project is committed to using an in-depth qualitative interview research methodology and is also experimenting with more innovative methods including gathering photos taken by researchers and participants, 3D Plasticine model-making in focus groups and novel geographical mapping exercises. 

Methodology

At the start of their first term, during induction week several hundred first year undergraduate students were presented with the opportunity to take part in the project. At their initial course get-togethers the Paired Peers research team gave a brief explanation of the project and asked all the students present if they would complete a short questionnaire designed to gather information on their socio-economic background. 

We asked students to supply the name of their school and postcode, so that areas of high and low university participation could be identified. We also asked for basic details such as age and ethnicity of themselves and their household family members; their parents’ occupation; and whether the parent(s) had completed university or Higher Education. We asked the students if they were receiving a bursary. In addition we asked students to self-identify their social class, which produced a variety of interesting responses over 2,000 students completed these short questionnaires which form an additional and fascinating quantitative data set in themselves. This data is currently being input into a data set for analysis. Of the students who completed the questionnaire,  roughly half (just over 1,000) consented to become part of the longitudinal study and participate in qualitative interviews and other activities. International and mature students were excluded as the study is focused on 'traditional age' UK entrants and then from the remaining sample, 80 participants were selected according to an assessment of class background, subject area and university.

Defining Social-Class

Defining ‘class’ is, of course significantly problematic in itself.  Whilst some socio-economic data is gathered by UCAS, it is notoriously unreliable and highly contested Instead, we have relied upon a combination of objective economic measures and geographic indicators, family and educational histories (concurrent with Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and symbolic capitals) and self-identification.

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