Posted by:


When uni drop out happens, it can be tempting to balme the student. But this is simplistic thinking at its worst.

The ways in which students from low socio-economic status in Australian higher education are thought about and talked about need some careful examination.

 There are deficit conceptions of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and deficit conceptions of the institutions in which they study. But is there a more useful and progressive framing of the widening participation agenda?

The Australian federal government has set an ambitious target in an attempt to address the under-representation of students from low socioeconomic status (low SES) backgrounds in higher education: that by the year 2020, twenty per cent of higher education enrolments at undergraduate level should be from students from low SES backgrounds.

But is Australian higher education ready to ensure not only their access to, but also their success at, university?
Cultural capital
Cultural capital is a notion that is important to understanding the experiences of student from low SES in higher education. University students from higher socio-economic strata and more traditional backgrounds build familiarity with high SES assumptions, values and expectations over a lifetime. They have a reservoir of cultural and social resources and familiarity with particular types of knowledge, ways of communicating and worldviews when they come to university, which helps them to feel comfortable, to progress and to succeed.

Many students from low socio-economic status do not have such a reservoir. Australian research shows that first year students from low SES backgrounds were more likely than their higher SES peers to say they have difficulty adjusting to teaching styles within the university environment. Research shows they are not familiar with the discourses of university, nor with how to engage with, master and demonstrate capacity in them. To do so requires particular socio-cultural capabilities relevant to the specific context of university study which many students from low SES backgrounds just do not have.

The notion of cultural congruity and incongruity has resonance in relation to socio-economic status and in particular to the level of socio-cultural congruence between students from low socio-economic backgrounds and the higher education institutions in which they study.

The first deficit conception: Students are the problem
There is loads of research around on elements of success at university within an individual student’s sphere of influence. This includes research on resilience, self-efficacy and motivation. While valuable, such research can be based on the assumption that university success is primarily the responsibility of individual students and can presuppose a level playing field in relation to socio-cultural and background characteristics.

It can be very seductive to think that if non-traditional students are clever enough, or try or persevere enough or believe enough in their own ability, they can succeed at university. However, with such a limited line of thinking, it follows then that failure to succeed at university is the fault of the student.  Such thinking is obviously highly problematic.

The absence of social class being considered as a key influence on the university experiences of students from low SES backgrounds, and the assumption that individualised factors are the main reason for student disadvantage, can lead to ‘victim blaming’ that can impede student success and fail to solve the real problem.

The second deficit conception: Institutions are the problem
Many researchers problematise the institutions that are responsible for low SES student progress. Institutional inflexibility is one common theme in such research and the argument is that the educational institution itself creates and perpetuates inequalities and should change.  A recent Australian research report suggested that universities should make changes in terms of heralding the expectations they have of students. This suggestion is underpinned by an assumption that the significant deficit lies with the student and that the only deficit for institutions is in not being clear enough about how they expect students to fit into existing structures and expectations.

There are at least two different discourses on the issue of retaining non-traditional students at university. One centres on what institutions do to fit students into their existing cultures and this discourse dominates. The second discourse challenges the dominant one and is still emerging. Rather than requiring students to fit the existing institutional culture, it suggests that institutional cultures be adapted to better fit the needs of an increasingly diverse student body.

The socio-cultural conception: Incongruence must be bridged
In recent work, I have proposed the notion of ‘socio-cultural incongruence’ to describe the circumstances where students from low socio-economic status engage with the discourses, tacit expectations and norms of higher education. There are many examples of this in the literature and in the lived experiences of such students. I have also proposed the adoption of the notion of a ’bridge’ in the conceptualisation of changes that could be made to lessen or ease socio-cultural incongruence for students from low socio-economic status backgrounds at university.

In contrast to the rather simplistic approach of advocating that either students try harder or institutions make expectations more explicit, the bridges and joint venture proposed are more complex and nuanced.

As the Australian federal government agenda in relation to widening participation is implemented, an increasing number and proportion of higher education students in the Australian sector will be from low SES backgrounds.

Without a radical shift in thinking, institutions within the sector in Australia may not be ready to respond en masse to ensuring the success of all students in the future.
Significant change in policy and practice is needed.

The full text of this article can be found in the journal Studies in Higher Education at


Leave a Reply