‘Why would you go to uni?’: Habitus, symbolic violence and the aspirations of rural school students

Year: 2019

Author: Fray, Leanne, Gore, Jenny, Patfield, Sally, Harris, Jess

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Access to higher education remains an enduring concern in improving university participation rates of students from rural backgrounds in many parts of the world. In Australia, substantial research has focused on barriers and enablers that shape rural student aspirations for university. However, relatively little research has investigated the role of local communities in influencing and increasing participation. Despite some research on aspirations utilising concepts of ‘place’, ‘community’ and ‘neighbourhood’, few studies have investigated the broader role of community in supporting student aspirations for higher education. The purposes of this paper are to: 1) better understand community influences on the educational aspirations of students; and 2) bring new insights to ameliorating the under-representation of rural students in higher education. We draw on data from a mixed method study mixed method study involving more than 1,700 students, teachers and parents which investigated the occupational and educational aspirations of rural school students in New South Wales, Australia. This paper narrows the focus to two schools in one rural agricultural community, Ironbark (pseudonym), utilising extended interviews with 19 participants. We employ Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and symbolic violence to provide a rich account of how rural students’ aspirations are shaped. We found that student aspirations for university are shaped by a collective community habitus that normalises post-schooling pathways that prioritise work over education. Our data paint a picture of agency; where direct routes into well paid are available and the question ‘why would you go to uni?” appears rational and self-determined. We also found that the typical discursive construction of rural communities as either left behind or booming contributes to the symbolic violence experienced by young people who do not pursue higher education. If we are to better support more rural students’ to aspire to university, outreach programs and government policy aimed at ameliorating their under-representation must recognise heterogeneity within and between rural communities and the powerful influences of symbolic violence and collective habitus.