Students as (More Than) Consumers? A Bourdieusian Exploration of English Undergraduates’ Discourses on and Practices in Higher Education

Azevedo, Carlos Pedro Rodrigues (2022). Students as (More Than) Consumers? A Bourdieusian Exploration of English Undergraduates’ Discourses on and Practices in Higher Education. PhD thesis The Open University.



‘Students as consumers’ has become the dominant discourse applied to English undergraduate students in the UK. The production and reproduction of this construction by both the UK policymakers and the academic literature is significantly connected to two main developments: the marketisation of higher education (HE) and the increased financial contribution of English students towards their studies in the UK. Nonetheless, there is still a lack of empirical studies incorporating English undergraduate students’ perspectives. Therefore, this study aims to explore English undergraduates’ discourses on and practices in a neoliberalised higher education system, specifically, how, or if, they enact the dominant construction of students as consumers of HE. The three main objectives are: (1) to examine how, if at all, the socioeconomic and educational backgrounds of English undergraduates shape their understandings of HE; (2) to explore how students construct their experiences and struggles within the field of HE, particularly how they conceptualise their positions and dispositions in relation to it; and (3) to appreciate how English undergraduates’ aspirations and expectations for the future, specifically regarding employability, relate to their discourses on and practices in HE. The study involves 37 in-depth, semi-structured qualitative interviews with existing and soon-to-be English undergraduates at different types of universities in England and Scotland. The data was analysed using thematic analysis and drawing on a theoretical model based on Bourdieusian theory complemented by a poststructuralist concept of identity, in which one helps to illuminate the other, enriching the understanding of the interrelationship between individuals and social structure(s) and contributing to extending Bourdieusian literature. The analysis of the findings informs several original contributions regarding English undergraduates’ discourses and practices. Importantly, it shows that, among other aspects, their socioeconomic and educational backgrounds considerably impact the ways in which they enact consumerist discourses on and practices in HE. In this way, this study provides a more nuanced and heterogeneous construction of contemporary English undergraduate students’ identities.

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