University of Sussex
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The value of higher education: a temporal analysis from Mass Observation

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posted on 2023-06-09, 14:01 authored by Fiona CourageFiona Courage
Higher education in the UK has experienced unprecedented levels of expansion over the last 50 years. This expansion has been underpinned by political and social discourses that expound its value to the social and economic prosperity of the country and more recently, towards the delivery of social justice and the social mobility of individuals. Higher education institutions are channelling increasing amounts of resource into supporting these discourses, largely around widening participation and fair access agendas. In juxtaposition, changes to funding models, including the cessation of maintenance grants and increasing charges for tuition fees, are placing significant financial burdens on graduating students, calling into question just how achievable these agendas can be. This research seeks to understand if there is a disparity between the social value and benefits that governmental and institutional discourses claim for going to university, and how individuals perceive the value of a contemporary degree. To do so it draws on the narratives of a panel of over 100 volunteer writers submitted as a qualitative survey on their opinions of and interactions with higher education. Drawn from all over the UK, these writers are participants in the Mass Observation Project, an in-depth, qualitative survey of everyday life in Britain established in 1981. The empirical research is embedded within biographical narrative methods, and seeks to create a landscape of perceptions of the social value of a university education and how these are embedded within people’s life stories. Using the depth and retrospective opportunities provided in the qualitative narratives of Mass Observation allows this research to provide a more nuanced understanding of both the long-term impacts of higher education on individuals and how perceptions of its social and economic value have changed over the decades. It suggests that the ability to derive the greatest benefit from going to university is embedded within social backgrounds and therefore ensuring equality is far more complex than simply providing an opportunity to access higher education. This thesis also illustrates how the use of longitudinal and qualitative methods of research can provide alternative viewpoints that should be considered when creating policies that will ensure the greatest benefit to providing value and equality within higher education.


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University of Sussex

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