Young, white and invisible: experiences of young Italian migrants in the UK in transition to higher education

Di Paolo, Terry (2008). Young, white and invisible: experiences of young Italian migrants in the UK in transition to higher education. In: BERA Annual Conference, 3-6 Sep 2008, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK.


In the UK, widening participation in post-compulsory education has been a government priority for over a decade. Further and higher education providers have invested considerable resource in engaging and recruiting what have been termed non-traditional students. The Higher Education Funding Council for England offers a broad consideration of non-traditional students that includes individuals from ethnic communities, first generation undergraduates and students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

A concerted effort to recruit such students, along with policy which supports expansion of the further and higher education sectors, has seen an increase in the number of students from ethnic and migrant communities in UK colleges and universities. In higher education, these groups are well represented but there are concerns about variation in terms of their participation, achievement and career transitions. Research that has explored these issues has tended to focus on members of the UK’s Black and Asian communities. However, a major study conducted by Connor et al (2004) has highlighted the need to explore the experiences and aspirations of white ethnic groups in the UK and their transitions into post compulsory higher education.

White ethnic groups in the UK are often overlooked, arguably rendered ‘invisible’, because of meanings and inclusions associated with the use of the term ‘ethnic minority’ in data collection tools and methods (MacDonald and MacDonald, 1972). Such approaches tend to construct or polarise ethnicity in terms of 'non-white' as a contrasting identifier to ‘white’. In this way, ‘white’ comes to symbolise peoples who are indigenous or native to the UK and ignores the white ethnic migrants who live and work in the UK.

A large proportion of white ethnic groups in the UK are European. With a long history of migration and emigration to the UK, Italians make up significant proportion of such peoples. There have been various waves of Italian migration to the UK but none as significant as that which took place during the 1950’s and 60’s. In a few years, thousands of mainly Southern Italians migrated to the UK to fill skill and labour shortages. Many settled in the South-East of England in Bedfordshire where they were contracted to work in the brick-making industry. Here they established one of the largest Italian communities in the UK. Today, Bedfordshire is still home to a large proportion of those first generation immigrants along with their descendents.

Despite Italian families settling across the UK, little work has explored the educational experiences of Italian migrants. Taylor (1988) has reported that Italians, both students and parents, have essentially been ignored in educational research. The 1960’s and 1970’s saw limited research which focused on the language issues experienced by Italian children in the classroom but this focused on a fairly unique population and set of circumstances. More recently, a comprehensive study of Italians in Bedfordshire reported that families often failed to value education and were unlikely to direct children into post-compulsory education (Colpi, 1991). However, these findings come from an era prior to the mass expansion of the higher education system in the early 1990’s.

The work reported in this paper seeks to inform and update our understanding of young people of Italian heritage, their educational choices and the role of the family in their decision making. In so doing, the work extends our understanding of how the expansion of post-compulsory education, particularly higher education, is responded to by communities of non-traditional students (see Thomas and Quinn, 2006). The paper also intends to highlight how the nomenclature of ethnicity can make invisible populations that should be described as non-traditional students.

The paper reports on an exploratory piece of research which examines the aspirations and educational goals of young people from Bedfordshire’s Italian community. The reported study comprised semi-structured interviews with a small number of Year 12 and Year 13 students of Italian heritage. Students were asked about their future plans, the extent to which university study featured in such plans and what role family members played in their decision making. Nineteen students were recruited from two Bedfordshire sixth-forms with a high intake of Italian students. Many of the students interviewed represented the first generation from their families to enter higher education and many were the children of parents who had little or no post-compulsory education experiences.

Thematic analysis of the interview data drew on notions of diverse capitals (Modood, 2004) and revealed how for many young people higher education was a source of pride and tension in families. Additionally, for some young people, the transition to higher education was perceived to differ from their non-Italian peers because of their Italian heritage. This paper concludes that the findings of this pilot study are significant enough to establish grounds for further investigation into the impact of family and heritage on the educational choices of white ethnic young people.

Connor, H.; Tyers, C., Modood, T. & Hillage, J. (2004). Why the Difference? A Closer Look at Higher Education Minority Ethnic Students and Graduates DfES Research Report 552
Colpi, T. (1991). The Italian Factor: the Italian Community in Great Britain. Edinburgh: Mainstream.
MacDonald, J. S. and MacDonald, C. D. (1972). The Invisible Immigrants. London Runnymede Trust Industrial Unit.
Modood, T. (2004). Captials, Ethnic identity and Educational Qualifications. Cultural Trends 13 (2) pp87-105
Taylor, M. J. (1988). Worlds apart? A Review of Research into the Education of Pupils of Cypriot, Italian, Ukrainian and Vietnamese Origin, Liverpool Blacks and Gypsies. NFER-NELSON Publishing Company Ltd.
Thomas, L. & Quinn, J. (2006) First Generation Entry into Higher Education. Open University Press

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