Part-time university graduates: social class, distance learning, employability and Pierre Bourdieu.

Delaney, Lorraine (2017) Part-time university graduates: social class, distance learning, employability and Pierre Bourdieu.


While access to higher education (HE) has substantially increased over the past number of years, the evidence suggests that social inequalities continue to be reproduced in terms of course level, field of study and institutional status. This in turn can impact on individual labour market outcomes.

This study employs Social Reproduction theory as an analytical framework. Using Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, field and capital as a lens, it examines the social class, participation experience and employment outcomes of those who completed an undergraduate degree part-time, through distance education. There is a dearth of research on the part-time student experience and also on the impact of completing a part-time degree on employability. Mixed methods of data collection were employed which included an analysis of institutional documents on 268 distance graduates, an online survey (126 respondents) and 17 semi-structured interviews.

Findings indicate that graduates typically share a working class habitus. They possess a long held desire to complete their degree. They sought part-time, distance university study as the opportunity cost of full-time attendance was simply too high. The study posits that without part-time higher education, significant progress in widening participation is improbable. The research identified a potentially new conceptualization of the part-time learner; one who has already participated in further or higher education at a level below honours degree, and who now wishes to top up that existing qualification to honours degree status through part-time/distance learning. During their participation graduates felt comfortable with other students on their course but did not feel part of the university. The literature identifies that our employability is something we negotiate with others. This study posits that, for part-time distance graduates, in addition to this process of convincing others, the graduate must also convince themselves of the value of their own achievement. Transitioning to graduate employment, and developing a graduate identity, can therefore be a slow external and internal process of negotiation.

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