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University access and after: explaining the social composition of degree programmes and the contrasting expectations of students


University expansion in higher education has been hierarchically differentiated. There is some concentration of certain social profiles in some degrees of study, so social composition between degrees can vary considerably. This article describes in terms of social composition 10 degrees of four public universities in the metropolitan area of Barcelona. We analyse 857 questionnaires filled in by mid-career students. From the perspective of agent’s decision on the choice of studies, we explore what were the factors that made them choose a concrete degree. We examine several variables that can indicate whether their expectations have been met or not. The results show that the factors predicted by the theory by which working-class (WC) students choose degrees—instrumental motivations and conditions that minimize the risk—are often met. In this regard, the recent structural reform related with the implementation of the European Higher Education Area that removes short-cycles degrees (3 years) could lead to a problem of access for WC students.

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  1. 1.

    In recent research on higher education, studies on the university experience of so-called non-traditional students (students who do not fit the profile of young white men of middle- or upper-class) stand out, although different universities valorise different versions of what a ‘normal’ student experience is (Brennan et al. 2009) and at times this transforms them into a new kind of institution (Reay et al. 2009a).

  2. 2.

    We have chosen two degrees from each area of knowledge along the hard-soft and pure-applied lines (Becher 2001): Architecture, Telecommunications Engineering, Chemistry, Biology, Social Education, Business Studies, Pharmacy, Nursing, Translation and Interpretation, and Humanities.

  3. 3.

    The WC is, therefore, slightly under-represented in the sample, since the situation of a parent who is a manual worker and a parent who works in another occupational category was not considered WC.

  4. 4.

    The surveyed students were enrolled at university before the beginning of the crisis (the majority in the 2007–2008 academic year).

  5. 5.

    An asterisk is added when the difference is statistically significant.

  6. 6.

    Filtered result, only corresponding to those students whose parents pay for their university education.

  7. 7.

    When students answered the questionnaire, before the complete implementation of the Bologna Process, master programmes had a professional orientation, different from the academic orientation of doctoral studies.


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This piece of research is part of the “National Plan for scientific research, technological development and research” (CSO2008-02812) funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, which is entitled “Students in front of new university reform’. The authors are part of the GRET, the Education and Employment Research Group at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. The written version of this article has been re-drafted and discussed with the rest of the GRET members taking part in this research: Lidia Daza, Albert Sanchez-Gelabert and Josep Maria Masjuan.

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Correspondence to Marina Elias.

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Troiano, H., Elias, M. University access and after: explaining the social composition of degree programmes and the contrasting expectations of students. High Educ 67, 637–654 (2014).

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  • Higher education
  • Access to university
  • Working-class
  • University differentiation