There has been a tendency in social science research to focus on disadvantaged groups, while their privileged counterparts - who are often cast as successful and ‘having it all’ - are seldom subject to scrutiny. Recently, however, there have been calls to focus more attention on elite groups and contexts for two main reasons. First, to shed more light on how elite cultures and spaces are maintained and reinforced, and also might be challenged. Second, because there is increasing evidence that the pressures and demands on many middle-class young people are having substantial detrimental effects on their wellbeing. Such pressures are seen to be linked to, among other things: heightening expectations about what constitutes educational and financial ‘success’; shifting economic climates and related insecurities; and the increasing importance of academic credentials.
In this paper we explore the challenges of coping with high-status and competitive undergraduate programmes in elite contexts where top-achievements are generally taken for granted. We consider how different learning and social contexts are related to students’ experiences of stress, and what kinds of coping strategies are available and used by different groups of students. We discuss the extra challenges faced by disadvantaged students in these contexts, and also the implications for promoting social justice through education.
We draw upon data from a large, ongoing, three-year (2015-2018), cross-national (Sweden and England) comparative interview project that investigates how constructions of masculinities and student identities inform strategies for coping with risks of academic failure and/or striving for success. The project focuses on three elite undergraduate programmes: Medicine, Law and Engineering. Data are being generated by observations, focus group interviews and individual interviews with students and staff.
Social Justice in Times of Crisis and Hope: Young People, Well-being and the Politics of Education, Barcelona/Spain, July 6-8th 2016.