Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education

Harrison, Neil; Waller, Richard


Neil Harrison
Occasional Associate Lecturer - ACE EDU

Richard Waller
Professor of Education and Social Justice


© 2018 British Educational Research Association Raising the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds progressing to higher education has been a key policy objective for successive governments in the UK since the late 1990s. Often this has been conceptualised as a problem with their ‘aspirations’, with the solution being seen as the provision of ‘aspiration-raising’ activities to promote higher education to those thought to have the potential to progress. Recent large-scale studies cast strong doubt on this hypothesis by demonstrating that aspirations are not generally low, that different social groups have similar levels of aspiration and that school attainment accounts for nearly all the differences in participation rates between social groups. This article draws on data from a national project exploring efforts to widen participation across two generations of practitioner-managers in England, focusing on their conceptualisations of the field and their constructions of ‘successful’ activities. It uses the lens of ‘possible selves’ (Markus & Nurius,) to argue that too much policy emphasis has been placed on the aspirations of young people, rather than either their academic attainment or their expectations, which are shaped by the normative expectations of the adults surrounding them. In addition, the more expansive concepts of widening participation that were present a decade ago have become less common, with a shift towards activities with a clear role in institutional recruitment rather than social transformation. The article concludes with alternative suggestions for policy and practice.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 4, 2018
Online Publication Date Sep 19, 2018
Publication Date Oct 31, 2018
Deposit Date Sep 12, 2018
Publicly Available Date Mar 20, 2020
Journal British Educational Research Journal
Print ISSN 0141-1926
Electronic ISSN 1469-3518
Publisher Wiley
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 44
Issue 5
Pages 914-938
Keywords access, aspirations, expectations, higher education, possible selves
Public URL
Publisher URL
Additional Information Additional Information : This is the peer reviewed version of the following article: Harrison, N. and Waller, R. (2018) Challenging discourses of aspiration: The role of expectations and attainment in access to higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 44 (5). pp. 914-938, which has been published in final form at This article may be used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with Wiley Terms and Conditions for Self-Archiving.
Contract Date Sep 12, 2018


You might also like

Downloadable Citations