‘Don't you think you're missing out, living at home?’ Student experiences and residential transitions



Recent policy shifts in higher education impact on the diversity of student experiences, one such trend is an increase in the number of students staying in their parental home for the duration of their studies. This has implications for students’ experiences of university life, particularly non-academic aspects. Drawing on Bourdieu's theory of practice and habitus, this papers explores how young people go about fitting in to ‘being a student’, and how predispositions to university life influence these practices. Residential status emerges as a key demarcating factor in how successfully students feel they adapt to being at university. Though related to class, this cannot be explained solely by the socio-economic background of students living at home, but rather reflects both practical problems faced by these students as well as difficulties in incorporating a student habitus while living at home.


There is considerable debate and discussion about the future of higher education in England and Wales. While policy makers, university administrators and academics struggle with the implications of further expansion in terms of workload, finances and the structure of universities, less attention has been given over to how students experience the changing organisational structures of higher education. Most research on students tends to focus on the academic side of university life, particularly the relationship between higher education and social mobility (Bynner et al., 2003). Research on non-academic aspects of university life has concentrated on practical issues, particularly changing financial structures and its implications for levels of student debt and parental support (Callender and Kemp, 2000; Callender and Wilkinson, 2003). Yet, there are other aspects of higher education expansion that have received less consideration. In particular, that as more students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds are recruited to HE, an increasing number are staying at home for the duration of their studies (UCAS, 2000; Patiniotis and Holdsworth, 2005). There is a sense that living at home represents an inferior model of participation in HE, and the NUS has recently warned against the emergence of a ‘two-tier’ education system, distinguishing between those who move and away and poorer students who live at home (Cottell, 2001). Popular discourses about students leaving home for the first time illustrate how going to university is recognised as an important rite of passage for young people. Yet there is relatively little research on students’ experiences of HE and how this relates to wider issues about transitions to adulthood (for a few notable exceptions see Kenyon, 1997 and 1999; Humphrey and McCarthy, 1997; Chatterton, 1999).

At such a crucial time for Higher Education it is appropriate to turn the spotlight of research directly on to students and their experiences of HE. Time spent at university is not just restricted towards the attainment of qualifications; but as students, parents, HE staff and even politicians recognise, one of the most important aspects of going to university is the opportunities it provides for making new friends, enjoying a less restricted social life and taking part in a range of non-academic activities. Yet this rather privileged ideal of education is not something that all students feel they have, or even want, access to. As the student body becomes more diverse in terms of class and ethnic background1 (Archer et al., 2002; Hayton and Paczuska, 2002;Summerfield and Babb, 2004), students’ experiences are also diverging and the concept of a normative ‘student’ experience, as stereotyped by popular portrayals of student life, is becoming less relevant, if it ever was. It is therefore appropriate to turn our attention to how young people experience being a student and the practices associated with student life. In this paper I focus on the relationship between leaving home and being a student. Drawing on Bourdieu's theory of practice and habitus, I compare how students who either stay at home or leave go about ‘fitting in’ at university.

The study

The project on which this is paper is based examined the choices and experiences of higher education students living in the parental home. The research incorporated a mixed methods approach combining a web-based questionnaire, interviews and focus groups. The data were collected at educational establishments in and around Greater Merseyside between November 2002 and October 2003. Undergraduate students at four HEIs were contacted by email or via an electronic bulletin board inviting them to complete the web-based questionnaire. The questionnaire included questions on reasons for choosing HEI, experiences of HEI and socio-economic background. The latter include questions on parental occupation and education that we have used to ascribe social class.2 In total we received 3,282 valid respondents (that is full-time, UK national students) that represents 10 per cent of eligible students in the four institutions surveyed.3 Response rates varied by institution: 16 per cent of students from the pre-1992 HEI responded, while we only received responses from 2 per cent of students in the HEI where we contacted students via the bulletin board. We also received more responses from women (65 per cent of responses) which is greater than the proportion of UK female students in the four establishments (57 per cent). 23 per cent of respondents stated that they were currently living with parents. Living at home is more common among students whose father does not have a professional or managerial job4 (28 per cent compared to 15 per cent of students from middle-class backgrounds) and who attend pre-1992 HEIs (29 per cent compared to 18 per cent at the pre-1992 HEI).

All respondents to the questionnaire were asked if they would be willing to take part in interviews. Respondents received a £15 music voucher for taking part. We divided survey respondents who agreed to be interviewed into eight groups on the basis of three categories: gender, living arrangements and fee-remission status (e.g. male students living at home not paying fees or female students living away from home and paying fees) and randomly selected interviewees from each group, of whom we successfully interviewed 26. These interviews were carried out in April and May 2003. An additional eight interviews were carried out with first-year students in the following autumn, giving 34 student interviewees in total. In the achieved sample respondents were aged between 18 and 40, with the majority between 18 and 21.5 We interviewed 19 students living at home and 15 away, 20 were first generation students and we had an equal breakdown by gender. During the interviews students were asked to talk about their reasons for coming to University, to reflect on their experiences of HE and intentions for the future. Respondents’ were asked about their social class background and this was compared with that identified at the questionnaire stage.

Six focus groups were carried out with prospective students (year 13) at school sixth forms, sixth form colleges and FE colleges throughout Greater Merseyside. The schools and colleges were chosen to capture a range of both education experiences and class backgrounds. In total 32 students took part in the focus groups; participants talked about their aspirations for HE and the factors influencing their decisions about where to go.

Theoretical approach

The theoretical framework used in this study is Bourdieu's theorisation of practice and forms of capital which provides a more critical perspective on production of knowledge and the role of the university. Bourdieu's approach to the University rejects the notion that higher education is about reducing social inequality, through enabling students from a variety of backgrounds to gain the necessary qualifications that will facilitate social mobility (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977). Rather his key contention is that education facilitates the differential attainment of social position (Nash, 2003). Bourdieu's writings have been extremely influential in educational research and his theory of cultural reproduction is well established in studies of differential attainment and, more recently, critiques of widening participation and student choice (Archer et al., 2002; Ball et al., 2002).

We have used this theoretical approach elsewhere in analysing how cultural capital impacts on decisions about how to go to university (Patiniotis and Holdsworth, 2005); in this paper I turn my attention to what happens to students when they arrive and how Bourdieu's theory of practice may be applied to ‘being a student’.

At the heart of Bourdieu's theory of practice is his insistence on the need to overcome the dualism between structure and agency, and, in order to achieve this, he uses the concept of the habitus, as a ‘system of structured, structuring dispositions’ (1990: 52). The debate about whether he actually succeeds in doing this has generated a substantial literature (see for example, Jenkins, 2002; Alexander, 1995). I do not intend here to rehearse these debates, rather my point of departure is that habitus provides a useful way of interrogating structure/agency in empirical research, though there is a need for careful treatment of habitus that moves beyond more deterministic interpretations and recognises the importance of reflexivity and reflection.

With habitus Bourdieu seeks to combine an account of action in which practices are ordered and regulated, yet at the same time recognises its ‘negotiated and strategic nature’ (Crossley, 2001: 83). Bourdieu describes habitus as a ‘product of history’, it puts the past in the present through ensuring the ‘active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action tend to guarantee the “correctness” of practices and their constancy over time’ (1990: 54). As such habitus accounts for the competencies and dispositions that generate and shape practice. The concept of habitus is closely bound up with fields, where the field provides the context within which action takes place and forms of capital are exchanged within and across different fields. Fields are often, but not necessarily, institutions, as in the case of education. Moreover, in recognising the field as the context for practices, Bourdieu compares the field to a game in which the players are motivated to chase after certain goals and act in a certain way, which for those not actively involved in the game, might come across as strange or even meaningless (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 98).

Debates over Bourdieu and determinism have focussed on how he defines habitus as the product of economic and social processes (Fuchs, 2003: 391), and this materialitic approach can initially look like ‘determinism in the last instance’ (Jenkins, 2002). Yet as Crossley (2001) points out it is a truism to state that structures predate individual action (universities were in existence before students arrive and they have to adapt to these pre-existing institutions). In recognising how structures predate agency Bourdieu does not intend to be deterministic, rather that the relationship between objective and subjective structures is circular: ‘across generations and through history, the circle of subjective and objective structures turns, without any “final instance”, deterministic or otherwise’ (Crossley, 2001: 91). As Fuchs neatly summarises, the relationship between structure and habitus is one where the former stimulates, rather than simply formulates, the latter: ‘social structures constrain and enable the creative dimension of the habitus’ (2003: 393). Within the context of the field of education, we also need to recognise that institutions are not ‘neutral’ and incorporate power relations in the way they structure habitus. For example there is a recognised distinction between ‘Oxbridge’, ‘Red-brick’ and the ‘New’ universities. Reay et al. (2001) have developed the concept of institutional habitus to distinguish how the values and practices of specific institutions are instrumental in shaping individual experiences of higher education. The values ‘expressed’ by an institution are formed over time and reflect those of the dominate cultural or social group within that institution to mutually reinforce the association between certain institutions and certain types of students.

Yet, a more substantive weakness that can emerge from Bourdieu's account of practice is the potential lack of scope for agents to move on and adopt a new habitus in new environments (Lawler, 1999). When researching young people's lives this narrow interpretation of habitus is particularly problematic as most academic accounts and those of young people themselves, are orientated around the concept of transition. On first reflection there appears to be considerable congruence between the concepts of habitus and transition. If the latter is taken as a smooth linear process, then the ways in which habitus facilitates bringing the past into the present could fit neatly into a transition model. However, the concept of a linear transition has come under close scrutiny recently (Skelton, 2002; Valentine, 2003). Transitions are recognised as more individualised, reflective and fragmented (Giddens, 1991) and do not necessarily follow a smooth and uni-directional path. While a more static treatment of habitus is a useful way of thinking about how young people's transitions are anchored in a set of dispositions that are shared in common with other young people from similar socio-economic backgrounds, we need to incorporate the changing circumstances of young people's lives that emphasise the importance of choice, risk and reflexivity. As Sweetman contends this reading of habitus is not absent from Bourdieu's work, as withdrawal or entry into a new game or field ‘will generate a different set of responses dependent upon one's “feel” for the game with which one is now confronted’ (2003: 534). One of the key attributes of habitus is the potential for invention, it is not that practices are determined by habitus, but that habitus helps us to know what to expect and how to respond to the unexpected. This dimension of habitus has particular resonance when researching young people coming to University, especially comparing students from different class backgrounds, and how they go about fitting in at university.

Crossley suggests that Bourdieu's theorisation may be enriched by adopting a phenomenological perspective, that places a sense of reflexivity and reflection within the construction of habitus. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty's approach to habit gives ‘a sense of the way in which habits fit into an ongoing dialogue between social agents and their world’ (Crossley, 2001: 106). By developing a more reflective approach to agency, the capacity for reflectivity becomes part of habitus and not separate from it. I find this approach particularly attractive for thinking about students’ experiences for a number of reasons. As I explore in the analysis of students’ account, the main distinguishing factor between students is not so much whether they automatically feel they are ‘at home’ at university, but the ways in which they adapt to their new environment.

The analysis presented here compares students’ experiences of university and how distinctions are drawn between those who live at home with those who live away. The significance of residential status operates as a labelling device, distinguishing local and away students,6 as well as mediating students’ relationship to university. Influenced by Bourdieu's social theory of practice and concept of habitus, I explore how students’ predispositions contribute to their experience of fitting in to university life and how successfully they create a new habitus as a student. A key element of this is how young people respond to ideals and images of the ‘typical’ student. As part of this process, whether young people leave home or not emerges as highly relevant to their experiences.


The analysis draws mainly on the questionnaire and interview data. I begin by briefly presenting the main findings from the questionnaire data to illustrate the importance of residential status on students’ experiences. The interview data are used to interrogate the patterns revealed by the survey, to provide insight into how students evaluate their own experiences. I am not therefore using a strict triangulation approach (Brannen, 1992), in that the quantitative and qualitative are not integrated to validate findings, rather the interview data are analysed to unpack nuances in how students actually realise different experiences.

Quantitative analysis

The survey included a number of variables that give a summary of students’ experience of HE, with respect to both academic studies as well as socialising and involvement in non-academic activities.7 Separate logistic regression models were fitted to predict whether respondents agree with two statements:

‘I am enjoying a good social life’

‘I have made friends easily’

The results of the logistic regression models are presented in table 1. A variety of variables were included to control for characteristics that might be expected to impact on student life. B coefficients above zero indicate a positive log odds ratio, that is students in the corresponding category are more likely to agree with each of the above statements. It is apparent that of all of the variables fitted in each model, the variable that has the biggest impact on the odds of students agreeing with both statements is whether a student has left home. Other variables are also significant, in particular we find that students whose father is in a professional/managerial occupation are enjoying a better social life and making friends more easily (though parents’ experience of HE has little impact). While travelling for less than 30 minutes to university, not surprisingly, reduces students’ enjoyment of social life and ability to make friends. Course subject and HEI also have an impact, with students on life science degrees making more friends in comparison to science students, while students at a pre-1992 HEI were more likely to disagree with the statement that they were making friends easily. Finally having a child or a caring role and not being single all have a negative impact on students’ social life.

Table 1.  B coefficients for models predicting students experience of non-academic university life
Variable and reference groupaB Coefficients
Having a good social life (logistic reg model)Make friends easily (logistic reg model)University-based activity versus no activity (multinomial reg model)Non-university-based activity versus no activity (multinomial reg model)
  • a

    In the case of dummy variables the reference category is not given, it is the opposite of the category listed.

  • Significant at 95% level.

  • Source: Experiences of Student Life Questionnaire.

Age 22+−0.98*−0.25−0.220.07
Course. Ref: science
Life science0.280.51*0.60*0.07
Social science/humanities−0.03−0.100.40*0.06
At Pre-1992 HEI0.06−0.44*0.89*−0.13
Year Started Course. Ref: 2002
Before 20000.46*−0.07−0.071.05*
Time travelling to HEI. Ref: 30 mins and over
0–9 mins0.41*0.120.44*0.03
10–29 mins0.53*0.29*0.37*−0.04
Student does not work during term−*−0.03
Has a caring role0.14−-0.50−1.250.62
Has a child−1.43*0.78−1.16*−0.38
Is not single−0.55*−0.29*−0.31*0.25
Parental experience of HE. Ref: No parent at HE
Both parents at HE−0.05−0.150.41*0.03
At least one parent at HE−0.03−0.210.13−0.01
Father's Occupation. Ref: Routine
Own account/craft0.42*0.48*0.350.45*
Not econ active0.120.64−0.08−0.18
Not known−0.07−0.06−0.05−0.01
Living away from home0.80*0.52*1.09*−0.43*

Another aspect of non-academic student life that we have explored is whether or not students take part in either university or non-university organised activities or both (such as sports clubs, NUS activities, voluntary work etc). Table 1 also gives the B coefficients for a multinomial model fitted to model the odds of type of activity, with not taking part in any organised activities used as the reference category (the coefficients for taking part in both activities are not presented). Students who take part in university activities only are more likely to live away from home, go to a pre-1992 University, live close to University, be male, study life sciences or social science/humanities and have a mother and father went to University. In contrast students who take part in non-university activities are more likely to live at home, which will account in part for their lack of involvement with university-based activities (e.g. local students might play in non-university sports rather than university-based activities). Moreover they are likely to be in their second or third year, be male and have a father with a professional/managerial occupation.

These models illustrate very clearly how living at home makes a substantial impact on experiences of non-academic student life, even after controlling for other factors, including social-class background. To illustrate this further, table 2 presents the percentage of students enjoying a good social life and taking part in university-based activities for different subgroups of students. What is apparent from this table is that the differential between the experiences of students living at home and away remains after controlling for other variables, though there is some modification. For example, approximately 63 per cent of all students living at home state that they are having a good social life, which is less than the proportion of students living away from home. Yet if we restrict our attention to middle-class students only the differential between students living at and away from home remains. The experiences of local students cannot be explained by the fact that more students who live at home come from non-traditional backgrounds. Though there are some differences between students at different institutions for engagement in university-based activities, the effect is the same for students living away from and at home. In fact, it is students living at home from less ‘traditional’ backgrounds and studying at post-1992 institutions who report one of the lowest levels of satisfaction with their social life and involvement in institution-based activities (though the results from the model suggest that they do not find it harder to make friends). This finding suggests that the impact of institutional habitus is to reinforce the expectations of the majority of students. In HEIs where more students live at home, we do not find that these students have a greater involvement in university life, but that they are more likely to be disengaged compared to students from similar backgrounds at pre-1992 HEIs. I shall return to the impact of institution when discussing the qualitative data.

Table 2.  Summary of students’ social life and university-based activities
 % Student ‘enjoying a good social life’% Students taking part in university-based activity
Students away from homeStudents living at homeStudents away from homeStudents living at home
  1. Source: Experiences of Student Life Questionnaire.

All Students81.063.537.112.2
Students with father in prof/managerial occupation86.563.441.115.1
Students with at least one parent at university84.265.241.614.2
Students at pre-1992 HEI85.163.145.716.9
Students whose father is NOT in prof/managerial occ and at post-1992 HEI72.061.825.37.8

Qualitative analysis

The quantitative analysis provides an intriguing snapshot on student life and the differences between students by residential status. However, in order to explore these findings in more detail, and the extent to which students themselves recognise these differences, I turn to thematic analysis of the interview data, that were analysed around themes of friendship and orientation to university life. The interview data do, for the most part, validate the findings from the survey in that differences between the two groups of students emerge as expected from the models. The value of the qualitative data is that it allows us to explore how students’ habitus facilitates the process of fitting in and how the experience of leaving home is part of this process.

The qualitative analysis is divided into three sections. The first section compares students’ experiences of socialising and making friends, and explores tentatively how and why students differ in their experiences. The second section turns to consider how students’ view their own performance, and in particular how they orientate themselves towards the popular portrayal of the ‘typical student’. The final section appraises how we might account for the marked differences between students who live at home and those who have left, and how leaving home becomes recognised as the ‘authentic’ student experience.

Socialising and making friends

The transition to university is an important rite of passage, and one that it very much ritualised. For young people starting university there is no shortage of information about what they should expect and how to prepare for starting university, with the emphasis very much on how young people are starting a ‘new’ phase in their lives. The assumption usually made is that students are leaving home for the first time. For example, Radio One's Onelife student guide suggests that students can choose between: ‘staying in the college halls of residence, renting a room privately in a family home or sharing a flat or house with other students’, no mention is made of living with parents (Radio One, no date). One interviewee in the study described how his nine-year old son was very upset when he found out that his father was going to university, as his son assumed that this meant that he would be leaving Liverpool. Though it is important to recognise that the way in which young people access information about higher education varies by social class (Archer et al., 2002: 97–118) and the assumption that going to university equates with leaving home will be more valid for students from middle-class backgrounds. In fact the emphasis on leaving home may be one reason why non-traditional students find it harder to access information about going to HE, as it does not necessarily match their experiences or expectations.

Yet experiences vary and discourses of class and higher education emphasise how acquisition of cultural capital and associated habitus prior to coming to university ease the transition to university life for more privileged young people. We would therefore anticipate that students’ from more advantaged backgrounds with a family tradition of higher education have an easier time in settling in, echoing Bourdieu and Wacquant's (1992: 127) much-quoted prediction that students with the ‘right’ cultural capital are entering ‘a social world of which [they are] the product, [. . .] like a “fish in water” ’. Yet on analysis of the interviews transcripts, I argue that we need at least to modify the fish in water analogy. All respondents, regardless of their backgrounds, recognise that they are not just ‘going to fit’ and make friends automatically, but that this is something that they have to work at. We discuss elsewhere (Patiniotis and Holdsworth, 2005) that for young people from more advantaged backgrounds going to university is treated as naturalistic and something that they have always assumed that they would do (see also Ball et al., 2002). However the certainty that these students have about moving away does not necessarily mean that the transition itself it automatic and most have to learn, at least, to swim in different waters on arrival. For students from less ‘traditional’ backgrounds the sense of unease is particularly acute, yet this is alleviated to some extent by recognising that all students are ‘in the same boat’, in that they all want to make friends. Most of the students who we spoke to would recognise Samantha's description on first arriving:

Yes. It's really scary on the first time, because I didn't know anybody, and there was no one from my school coming to my part of the university. But everyone was just saying hi to everybody. [Samantha, 19, LWP, FG]8

Being surround by new people in new environments has a profound impact, and most students were very conscious of how they responded to this, particularly in the first few weeks. This sense of deliberation, rather than young people just ‘becoming’ students, reflects the emphasis on a strategic active habitus that does not just operate unconsciously (Reay, 2004). A common strategy is one of friendly containment, that is trying to get on with as many people as possible, but not giving too much away about yourself. This notion that it is best to be ‘cautious’, is particularly relevant for Robert, a gay student, as he had not yet come out to his friends about his sexuality and he was not ready to reveal something about himself to complete strangers that he had not yet told his friends and family:

And it's like we didn't want to go to the stall and sign up for the LGB [Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society] in front of everyone in the first week, because it's like, well, I haven't told half my friends yet, and it's like I don't do it straight away, you know, I do it like gradually. And so it's like I don't really want to go to the stall with a man wearing a T-shirt with another man having sex with another man on it. It's just like there's no need. [Robert, 19, LH, FG].

While not all students have to contend with Robert's dilemma, his experience of holding back information is not unique. Most respondents argued that universities operate as social melting pots, where students from all different backgrounds mix well, with the ideal that is ‘does not matter who you are’. This would appear to be a refutation of Bourdieu's approach to cultural reproduction. Yet as Jenni illustrates, this illusion of friendliness and openness did not necessarily last for long:

Well, yes, in my first year I was quite proud at how friendly everyone was, and everyone was like getting on and mixing. And everyone's kind of like separated out into groups. And then this last second year, it's more people's true personalities have come out, and a lot of them are quite bitchy and competitive. But then there's still – like I've still got quite a few friends who are like nice, you know. I get on with them, and you think, oh, you can trust them to a certain extent. So yes. In the first year I was really chuffed, I thought, everyone's so lovely! And then this year I thought, hmmm, it's a bit of an act. [Jenni, 25, LWP, FG].

Jenni's observation that the friendliness adopted by many students in the early days is a ‘bit of an act’, reflects the sense of knowing the game, particularly on first encountering a new ‘field’, as in arriving at university. In part Jenni's unease about whether she could trust her fellow students reflects her own anxiety about coming to university as a local first-generation student and whether her background is the ‘right’ one for HE, reflecting a lack of congruence between her habitus and those of her fellow students (Patiniotis and Holdsworth, 2005).

In exploring why some students fit in better residential status is clearly recognised as an important factor. There are a number of reasons for this. When asked about why students living at home might have different experiences, many students recognised how it was important for students who move away to ‘fit in’, as Grant, who lives at home, recognises:

Because the people that must come from other parts of the country into student accommodation or halls of residence, they must feel really er – not lonely, but, you know, like they need to really make the effort to make friends and to join things, just to get them used to it.

[Grant, 20, LWP, FG]

Linked to this is a very strong sense that it is easier for students who leave home to make friends, as they spend more time mixing with other students outside of the lecture theatre, while those who live at home have fewer opportunities to mix with fellow students:

Interviewer: Did you manage to make friends?

Marissa: Yes, but not as many as I would have if I'd have lived there. So that was quite hard, I was a bit lonely at first, because everyone like knew everyone, and they lived together in the halls. I just came in for the lectures, then I went home.

[Marissa, 21, LWP, FG]

Travelling and not living in halls are often ‘blamed’ for difficulty in making friends. Yet some students who we spoke to worked around this by going on organised events and if necessary staying the night at friends’ houses.

However practical problems are not the only reason why students living at home do not make the effort to make friends, as not all students recognise the need, or want, to fit in to university life. Among those who live at home many retain their home-based friendship networks, as Alex who is a first generation student (his father is a plumber) describes:

Interviewer: OK. So since you go to university, would you say, have you made friends with the people that you're doing your course with?

Alex: Yes. I've made friends with them.

Interviewer: Do you socialize with them much outside classes?

Alex: Not as much. I spend more time with my original friends from college that I've had through school and college. [Alex, 22, LWP, FG]

Students such as Alex who live at home do not necessarily experience the same sense of discontinuity with home compared to those who move away, and often tend to have a more functional relationship to university. Alex is studying at a pre-1992 HEI, though we found in our interviews, in contrast to the finding from the survey, that the type of institution did not have a big impact on students’ experiences. Lack of engagement, such as that described by Alex, was found among students at all three HEIs from which we recruited interviewees. Speaking to staff at the different HEIs, however, we did find that there was more concern about lack of engagement in university life among staff at the post-1992 HEIs, particularly how this may lead to retention problems, which would concur with our survey data. In conversations with HE staff involved with widening participation and retention the phrase ‘they just change the bus route’ was used a couple of times, to describe how some local students treated going to HE as no different from going to school or college. The institutional habitus in the post-1992 HEIs rather than encouraging non-traditional students to take an active part in university life, tends to reinforce the lack of engagement which is more dominant among students in local catchment areas. The uncertainties and difficulties experienced by ‘new’ students (Leathwood and O’Connell, 2003), as illustrated by their lack of involvement in student life, are not necessarily lessened by studying at ‘new’ universities.

Yet in understanding Alex’ s experiences, it is important not to pathologise his experiences, and that of other working-class students, for not playing the game of higher education (Skeggs, 1997). From talking to students such as Alex, we found that some students who live at home do not necessarily feel that they do not fit in, because it would not occur to them that they could (or should) take part in non-academic aspects of university life. When asked about university-based clubs or organisations, Alex was rather hesitant and rather surprised at the question:

Interviewer: So do you belong to any sort of university-type organizations or clubs?

Alex: Apart from NUS?

Interviewer: Yes.

Alex: Well, to begin with I used to be – just clubs, not university, just . . . ?

Interviewer: Well, you know, university organizations or anything that's connected with the university . . . 

Alex: Connected with the university?

Interviewer: . . . that's got a sort of social aspect to it.

Alex: Er . . . no.

For Alex, university is less an exciting time of meeting new people and new experiences; it is more a place to get a degree. Alex's habitus does not concur with the ideal of university as a new and exiting time. Living at home and retaining the familiarity of home environments and friendship groups (see below) reinforces this.

Yet not all working-class students have the same relationship to university life as Alex, others are more aware of the ‘game’, though for various reasons often find it difficult to access student life. Among those living at home this was sometimes related to conflict with parents, who while being supportive of their children's educational aspirations, were unsure about their children ‘moving on’. This sense of unease among both students and their families reflects perceived and real conflicts between being a student on the one hand and being part of their local community on the other. This unease that local students feel in inhabiting two very different worlds equates to what Lawler defines as a ‘disrupted’ habitus (Lawler, 1999). For example, Holly who is a first-generation student describes how her local friends do not understand what being a student involves:

I've got a friend who just didn't understand what it's like being a student, and he’ll like call, like call round the house and say, oh, well, do you want to come out for a drink? I say, I can't, I'm doing work. He’ll be like, oh, don't be silly, come out. And he just doesn't seem to have any direction in which he'd like – he gets lots of little silly jobs that don't pay much money. And I just don't want to associate myself with that kind of thing. I just think – but I mean I don't think – there's probably nowhere better than it, but yes, they are, really like scally kids, and just horrible.

[Holly, 21, LWP, FG]

The fact that she lives at home enhances Holly's sense of how she does not fit in among her local friends. Yet at the same time she acknowledges that she does not socialise much with other students, partly because she lives some distance from university, but also because of tensions at home with her Mum, who still expects her to be part of the family.

However, among the interviewees we did find that working-class students who had most ‘success’ in fitting in were those who had left home. For example Robert, whose experiences in the first year surrounding his sexuality I have discussed above, recognised how he had broken away from his class background in moving away to HE (his father is a miner) and talked at length at the friendship he had developed with his neighbour at halls, whose father was a newspaper editor. Robert describes how much he has changed in comparison to his friends back home who did not go to HE. Unlike local students he does not feel the sense of constantly moving between two worlds on a daily basis, but that he has left his old world behind, and does not have such a strong sense of a disrupted habitus. Moving away from home has allowed Robert the space and time to concentrate and reflect on his experiences without constantly feeling the contrast with his friends in the locality where he grew up. Yet his initial unease about ‘coming out’ does hint at some anxiety about his student identity. Working-class students who leave home may be subject to exactly the same anxieties as Jenni and Holly, but it would appear from this data that they are in a better position to adapt to student life away from the pressure of having to negotiate between two distinct worlds on a daily basis.

For middle-class students the relationship between leaving home and ‘fitting in’ and making friends is more clearly associated with practical problems, rather than a disrupted habitus and unease about being a student. For example, students living at home identified problems connected with commuting and the organisation of HE dominated by impersonal lectures, which made it difficult to meet new people and make friends. Yet sometimes tensions between student and family life emerged if parents were not accepting of young people's expectations of ‘heavy’ socialising.

The typical student

In order to ‘fit-in’ and make friends, young people reflected on how they consciously adopted a strategy in order to go about doing this, as Jenni remarks above, it was for many ‘a bit of an act’. Part of this game or act involves how students evaluate their own performance as well as those of their peers. A key part of this reflection and reflexivity is how they compare themselves to the ‘typical student’. Though there are number of ideal student types representing different orientations to student life (Chatterton and Hollands, 2003: 128), we did get a very strong sense of a universal typical student, though we did not interview any student who declared that they fulfilled this stereotype completely. Maybe if the ‘typical’ student was being true to form she would be too hung-over to get out of bed to take part in an interview, though the possibility of earning money (albeit a voucher) might have been attractive. The stereotypical student is very much a creation of contemporary folklore, and one that is often evoked in popular discourses about student life. Most of our interviewees were very much aware of the ideals about heavy drinking, socialising, political activity and getting into debt. They judged their own performance against what they assumed ‘other’ students were doing. This reflexivity is very much an embodied process, being a student is not just about getting qualifications but about codes of dress and behaviour and taking on a identity that is recognisable by others. As Natalie, a fresher, describes, there is a look (that can be externally read) and a feel to being a student:

Interviewer: So would you say that like there's a definite look to being a student?

Natalie: Um, yes, look and feel. I always used to think students just go out and get wrecked every night, but it isn't! [laughing] No, there's much more to – I think when you're not a student you sort of have these preconceptions of people that just go mad and are crazy, and if you can't handle the pace then you're not a student. But yes, it's really enjoyable, there's a lot more things to it, a lot more activities and friendships and things. So yes, I don't feel like I'm a student. [Natalie, 18, LH, SG]

To adopt a student identity Natalie recognises how she has to ‘feel the part’, that student identity is not something that can be just assumed nor is it a labelling device, but is incorporated into one's body and becomes authentic through this embodiment. This very much reflects Merleau-Ponty's observation that ‘we say that the body has understood and habit has been cultivated when it has absorbed a new meaning and assimilated a fresh core of significance’ (1962: 146 also quoted in Crossley, 2001). The ‘look and feel’ of being a student is identified with dress (Natalie goes on to debate with herself as to whether she should buy some ‘funky’ clothes to fit in with the student image), going out and getting into debt:

Natalie: Oh no, I think the ideal is someone who looks the part and acts the part but still says, oh, I've got no money, I've got no money! [in a complaining voice] That's one phrase I've heard all week – I have no money. Freshers’ week has made me bust. So.

Natalie reflects that she does not feel like a student because she has not fully taken on board the behaviour she associates with the stereotypical student. Yet the idea that it was ‘other’ students who were fulfilling the stereotype was very common, particularly concerning going out and getting into debt. In fact debt is one aspect of student life that causes most anxiety, and one that many respondents were less comfortable about being part of. As Natalie remarks complaining about being in debt is part of student identity, it offers a perverse status symbol, the more debt you are in, the greater your assimilation into student life. Students who are less concerned about debt are those who are less likely to have difficulty paying if off (in that they tend to come from more advantaged backgrounds). The acceptance of debt as an inevitable part of student life is therefore clearly class-based. Some respondents felt pulled in two directions, one the one hand they wanted to go out and do the ‘student thing’ but on the other were nervous about getting into debt and were somewhat envious of fellow students who appeared to going out every night, as Alison a first-year student living in halls of residence describes:

I don't drink period, pretty much, now, and I used to, I used to love going out. But I don't any more. It's basically just because I can't afford it. Which is another big huge aspect of student life that I'm missing out on. And it's good in a way, but then it's also quite depressing when you realize that people are having so much fun because they're going out, you know, a couple of nights a week, and I like can't afford it, can't go out. . . . you don't actually realize how poor you're going to be, and the sacrifices that other students don't seem to be making but you’ve got to make! [laughing] I mean I dread to think what people – the kind of debt people are going to be in, you know, in terms of overdraft, if they go out every week and they spend sort of twenty quid per night when they go out. I can't understand how they can actually do that, because I'm in debt and I don't do that. It's a bit confusing. [Alison, 18, LH, SG]

Alison feels that she is missing out by not embracing the habit of going out and spending money. While she is conforming to a standard of behaviour that would be highly valued in most other contexts, that is being careful about money and not getting into debt, she perceives that it does not have status among her peers, and this she finds confusing. There is a mix match of distinct habitus for Alison between one that reinforces being responsible with money against another that embraces high levels of consumption.

Adapting to student life can sometimes be difficult if young people feel that the identity they are expected to assume conflicts with their aspirations, that is they are very much aware of the rules of the game and the status associated with succeeding in ‘being a student’ yet have mixed feelings about whether this is right for them. We found that some of the women who we spoke to were particularly ambivalent about the expected female student identity and the connotations of sexual promiscuity that might go along with this. For example, Sarah found that being a student conflicted with her identity as a Christian and she felt embarrassed about going to church, which is something she regrets:

The thing about the typical woman, other things, er . . . the way things are going, I mean I really would have liked to have carried on going to church, you know, being able to definitely come round and say, yes, I am a Christian. But I can't do that now. But – because it's just – it's embarrassing in a way when I think of – I'm not blaming university for making me go in the wrong direction, but I think in modern society there's no place for – well, there is a place more for spirituality than religion. [Sarah, 21, LWP, FG]

Yet other respondents go further and treat the stereotypical student as a caricature that they want to avoid becoming:

Oh, Students in Red, I went on that until it – you can tell just how dedicated I am. I went to the Students in Red march, and then it started raining and I just thought, no way! So I went home . . . : I'm not into this student-student-student thing. [Justin, 22, LH, SG].

Regardless of how well they feel they fit into student life, students are continuing judging their own performance against which they perceive others are doing, and also in the way that (they think) other students see them. This process of constantly comparing against ‘other’ students evokes Mead's theorisation of the ‘generalised other’, and contributes to how students feel a sense of belonging in HE. Mead takes the generalised other to refer to the community to which an individual belongs (1934: 154). For Mead it is not sufficient for an individual to recognise the attitudes of others towards herself, but that she also needs to take on board ‘their attitudes toward the various phases or aspects of the common social activity or set of social undertakings in which, as members of an organised society or social group, they are all engaged’ (ibid: 155). The ways in which young people reflect on their own competencies of being a ‘student’ draw on a set of images and practices associated with being a ‘typical’ student that ‘other’ people embody.

Living at home and being ‘othered’

Residential status is closely bound up with the popular portrayal of being a ‘typical student’. There is an expectation that not living with parents gives young people more freedom and opportunity to socialise and be part of the student scene. Discourses about identity, debt and friendships are differentiated by residential status, so that living at home or not acts as a discernible ‘othering’ demarcation. Students who live at home are not expected to experience the same authenticity of student life, as Sarah's account describes:

Um . . . yes, because they're always saying, oh, you know, don't you think – I got that so much myself – don't you think you're missing out, living at home? Don't you – you know, don't you want to socialize? Don't you want to do what you want to do when you want to do it? And then I was thinking, well, yes, you know, I do, but I've got really good parents, so they never stop me doing anything anyway. But it's not so bad now, once you’ve accepted people for who they are and what their choices are, but yes, it did annoy me at first, because they were, oh, you know, it sounds . . . Yes. Mmm, it doesn't really bother me now.

Sarah's account of her time at university is very much one of overcoming the kinds of barriers she discusses above. Unlike Alex, for whom fitting in was not an issue, Sarah, though also a first-generation student, is very much aware of how others perceive her and make judgments about what she can and cannot do.

Residential status is an expedient way by which students can differentiate between each other and appears to be more acceptable than class. As noted above many students are uncomfortable about making distinctions on the basis of class (Sayer, 2002), and endorse the ideal of the university as a social melting pot. Yet most students were prepared to generalize about other students on the basis of where they lived. The stigma that Sarah perceives reflects the dominant assumptions linking going to university and leaving home. Among the students who we spoke to, those who did break down the barriers that Sarah experienced had to be very tenacious and resourceful. Given that most local students arrive at university with fewer preconceptions about the ‘right’ way to go about being a student, the fact that they live at home means that this is recognizable by other students. In a city such as Liverpool many local students will be easily identified by their accent, which can exaggerate this ‘othering’ process. This may also be class-based, as the assumptions about local students not fitting in, may in part reflect the recognition that these students are predominantly from working-class backgrounds. As such students living at home are faced with a two hurdles to overcome in being part of student life. First, that they would have had less exposure to the possibility of going to university from their parents and peers and as such their habitus is less likely to orientate them towards a smooth transition to HE. Second, that others recognize this and assume they do not want, or cannot, be part of the student scene. For many it is easier not to try and be part of student life.


Current academic and policy interest in widening participation and the continuing barriers to HE have established the importance of structural factors, particularly class, on participation and student retention. The finding that locality and the choice of whether to leave home or not has an important impact on student experiences, and moreover, that this cannot be explained by the socio-economic characteristics of students who live at home, is an important addition to the literature on student participation and experiences. My argument is not that class does not matter, but that local based students face additional barriers to overcome in their experience of university life, which are related to practical issues, orientation to university life and the assumptions made by other students.

So why is leaving home important? Bourdieu's theory of practice and concept of habitus provide a useful point of departure for understanding how young people from different backgrounds succeed at being a student. Fitting in is not something that students go about unconsciously, instead they adopt deliberate strategies to make friends and be part of university life. How students reflect on their experiences is influenced by their awareness of what other students are doing and the kinds of behaviour that they might be expected to assume. We do not get a sense of students automatically adopting a ‘typical’ student identity. Rather stereotypical images are something that they might measure their own experiences against, but not in an uncritical or unreflexive way. The extent to which students feel that they fit in, and indeed the fact that they recognise that they might be expected to fit in, is not something that is arbitrarily distributed among students. Certain groups recognise the rules of the game and are more willing, and hence more successful, in adapting to them. The experience of leaving home can facilitate this process. In particular for students from non-traditional backgrounds, moving away from home may make it easier for students to overcome the contrasts between their home communities and student life. While students who stay at home may find it harder to immerse themselves in student life, partly due to practical problems, but also if they have to continuously moving between two different worlds and experience the misfit between the habitus of the student world and their local community on a daily basis.

The comparison of the two groups of students reveals how mobility becomes a form of embodied cultural capital, that leaving home is the ‘right’ thing to do in these circumstances, and experiences of residential transitions reflect on young people's capacities and capabilities to ‘become’ students. Mobility can be seen as facilitating a student habitus. For those who live at home, yet want to take part in university life, the main barriers to integration are not just practical ones, but also involve the attitudes of others who acknowledge their status as home-based students and assume that they would either not want, or be able, to be part of the student scene. Students’ experiences provide an important perspective on the association between social and spatial mobility (Savage et al., 1992), as what matters are the practices of mobility as much as the actual location of places of origin and destination. In this study, working class students who left home to go to university, regardless of where they came from, found it easier to fit and mix with other students. In contrast local students were more aware of the stigmatisation of being a ‘scallie’.

The final consideration is does this matter? It is valid to point out that the study on which this paper is based normalises the traditional student experience, in exploring how local students ‘miss out’, we are taking for granted the benefits of ‘going to university’. On the one hand it would appear that students who stay at home are not fully engaging in the field of higher education. Yet students who stay at home and maintain their home-based networks are building up local social capital that could be more profitable if they plan to stay local after graduating. From this perspective the strategy of maintaining links with their home community is both realistic and appropriate. While accepting this as a valid interpretation, I believe it important to recognise how widening participation is raising the stakes of higher education, with a greater awareness of the differing value of students’ higher education experience; depending on what degree they have, where they obtained it from, how much they paid for it and ‘how’ they went to university. As Reay describes class differences remain a key characteristic of the English education system which ‘valorizes middle class – rather than working class – cultural capital’ (2001: 224). The choice about leaving home is a good example of how there are recognised ‘right’ ways of going to university that are nevertheless arbitrary (we only have to look to our counterparts in continental Europe where the link between going to university and leaving home is much weaker to acknowledge this), and as such serves to reinforce distinctions between different groups of students on the basis of not just the right embodied cultural capital and habitus but also the economic capital to finance it.


The research for this paper is supported by ERSC research grant R000223985, whose support is gratefully acknowledged. I would like to thank Jackie Patiniotis, who worked as a research assistant on the project, for her invaluable contribution to both data collection and analysis; Gerard Delanty and the two anonymous referees for comments on earlier drafts of the paper and Sue Byrne of the Computing Support Services, University of Liverpool, for her assistance in publishing the online questionnaire.


  • 1

    Though more students from social class III (manual) IV and V are entering higher education than was the case ten years ago (19 per cent in 2001/02 compared to 11 per cent in 1990/1), their participation is still considerably lower than young people from middle class backgrounds, whose participation has increased from 35 to 50 per cent over the same period (Summerfield and Babb, 2004).

  • 2

    Social class is defined using parental occupation classified using the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS SEC) eight category model:
     1) higher professional/managerial and employers in large organisations;
     2) lower professional and managerial and higher technical and supervisory;
     3) intermediate occupations;
     4) employers in small organisations and own account workers;
     5) lower supervisory and technical occupations;
     6) semi-routine occupations;
     7) routine occupations;
     8) never worked and long-term unemployed;
     9) occupation not stated/not known.
    Classes were combined for the classification used in the final modelling. In cases where the assignment of parental occupation to the classification was not clear, for example if a student gave the responds ‘engineer’, a judgement of the appropriate category was made by examining parental experience of HE and student's fee remission status.

  • 3

    The response rate is calculated using HESA data on the number of full-time UK students enrolled in the four institutions in 2002/3.

  • 4

    In the quantitative analysis I have used father's occupation as a proxy for social class background. In the logistic modelling I compared the results of using father's occupation, mother's occupation and highest parental occupation (choosing either maternal or paternal) and found that the best fit model (as measured by the – 2 Log Likelihood) was that which used father's occupation.

  • 5

    Many mature students fall into the group of students who live at home, however for the purposes of this paper I focus on the cohort of students in their late teens/early twenties.

  • 6

    Not all local students live at home. In the survey, 9 per cent of students were from Merseyside but did not live at home.

  • 7

    These variables are derived from a series of likert-scale questions which asked about students’ experience of student life. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they agreed strongly, agreed, neither agreed or disagreed, disagreed or disagreed strongly with a number of statements.

  • 8

    Respondents are identified by their pseudonym, age, residential status (LH – living at home, LWP – living with parents) and whether first (FG) or second (SG) generation students.