Current Research in Vancouver

Masculinities and Academic Achievement: Access and experience of higher education for young men from low-income backgrounds


 The principal aim of this study is to investigate the higher educational experiences of young men from low income backgrounds and those who are the first in their family to attend university at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Taking an intersectional approach to class, race and gender, this study’s key focus is to explore how these young men’s masculinities are shaped and reshaped in the university context.

Background and Rationale

 Since the 1990s there appears to have developed an increased anxiety in the global north about the position of boys and young men (MacInnes, 1998; Clare, 2000; Morgan, 2006; Kimmel 2006; Lingard, Martino, and Mills, 2009; Roberts, 2014). These concerns have centred on a range of issues including boys’ supposed educational ‘underachievement’ (when compared to girls), girls’ high rates of suicide, and poor mental health among young men and boys’ involvement in offending and anti-social behaviour. The supposed lack of male role models has also been highlighted as a growing concern for educators, politicians, policy makers and those in the media (Cushman 2008; Dermott, 2012; Abbott, 2013; Tarrant, et al 2015; Robb, et al. 2015). These problems have been framed as outcomes of a ‘war’ on boys (Hoff Sommers, 2000, 2013), or a ‘crisis’ of masculinity (Beynon, 2002; Morgan 2006; Kimmel 2008). However, as others have pointed out, this discourse is far from novel and has a much longer history than the current ‘crisis’ suggests (Connell, 1995; Grieg, 2012; Roberts, 2014). Also as feminist and pro-feminist researchers have argued, boys and young men still learn to enact power in these times of ‘crisis’ (Keddie 2007, Weaver-Hightower, 2008, Ringrose and Renold, 2010). Therefore, although the generic category ‘boys’ is often used in policy and cultural commentaries, in reality it is young men from working-class backgrounds who are most often associated with this ‘crisis’ anxiety and with public fears of disorder, disrespect and delinquency around their performances of masculinity (McDowell, 2007, 2012). These fears also seem to cross ethnic and racial boundaries (Gillborn, 2009; Corbett, 2012; Noguera, 2008; Corbett and Younger 2012).

Consequently, while has been a significant debate around boys’ educational ‘underachievement’ across the global north (Epstein, et al, 1998; Martino and Rezai-Rashi, 2012; Morris, 2012;) and the difficulties young men face in the post-industrial era (see Weis, 2004; Kenway, Kraak and Hickey-Moody, 2006; Nayak, 2006; Corbett, 2007; Ward, 2014a, 2014b) very little work has been conducted around the difficulties and challenges facing white and BME young men from working-class backgrounds who display alternative performances of masculinity through academic success and become ‘achieving boys’ and enter higher educational institutions (Lurmann, 2009; Ingram and Waller, 2014; Sweeney, 2014). This study aims to develop my previous work in the UK and add a layer to these discussions by concentrating on young men from ethnically diverse low-income backgrounds who have enrolled at a Canadian university and contribute to the growing literature and debate on Canadian masculinities (Ramsey, 2011; Greig and Martino 2012; Laker 2012).

Research Questions

 The proposed study is guided by the following research questions:

  • Do academically successful young men from working-class backgrounds experience specific challenges or barriers (e.g. peer and family expectation, finances, mobility) in accessing higher education?
  • Does academic success and transition to university mean creating or adopting different or new performances of masculinity to their home communities?
  • Do the traditions of a community or a geographical place impact on what is acceptable subject choice by young men?
  • What are young men’s experience of, and attitudes to, education, learning and the courses they study?
  • What leisure interests do academically successful young men engage in whilst at university, and are these classed, raced and gendered?
  • To what extent (if at all) does university foster and develop opportunities for men to resist hegemonic forms of masculinity or does it intensify male privilege through misogyny and sexual harassment?
  • What strategies are adopted to achieve future success and how do these impact on relationships with family, friends, peers and partners?

Research Methodology

 A qualitative approach will be used to explore the perspectives and experience of young men attending Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Following on from my experience of conducting earlier work with young men from socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK (Ward, 2013, 2014a, b, c; Robb, Featherstone, Ruxton and Ward, 2015) the proposed study specifically aims to build an international element to this work and recruit those from low-income families and those who are the first in their families to attend university. While there is a growing body of literature on the increasing entry of young people from working-class backgrounds into higher education (Woodin and Burke, 2008; Reay, Crozier and Clayton 2009, 2010; Burke 2012; Ingram and Waller 2014), very little of this focuses on how young men from these backgrounds (who can be termed academically successful), negotiate their masculinities in these spaces and then beyond them when they return to their home communities.

Young men will be recruited through advertisements placed in the student newspaper, posters around campus and in student halls of residence and supported by announcements made in class at the beginning of the semester across subject areas and to different year groups. Due to the small exploratory nature of the study, it is envisaged that a sample of 12-15 young men (who meet the research criteria as low-income students and those who are the first in their family to attend university) will then be recruited to be interviewed individually and by way of focus groups. A semi-structured (1-1) interview format will be used in a flexible way to ensure that the young men feel comfortable outlining their experiences and that the process is a collaborative one. Respondents will be given photographs to elicit conversation and asked to bring their own biographical photos or photos of men they admire to the group interviews. The combination of both group and individual interview methods is likely to reveal a complex interplay between different (and shifting) masculinities. All interviews will be transcribed verbatim and coded for key themes using a CAQDAS package. Comparisons and contrasts between participant’s narratives will be analysed with particular attention paid to their gender, class, ethnicity, race, and other identities.

 Ethical considerations

 The research process will follow the guidelines for good practice as set out by the British Sociological Association and those of the host university. Consent will be obtained at the beginning of the data collection process by providing the young men with an information sheet about the study and asked to sign a consent form if they wish to take part. All transcripts will be anonymised and individual password protected. The data will be stored on a password protected external hard drive.


The findings of the study will be presented through a dissemination event at the end of the semester at the host university, with an interactive workshop for a range of key stakeholders which will include key university staff, the student union and the participants themselves. This research is expected to feature in peer-reviewed academic articles, and planned for publication include the British Journal of Sociology of Education, Studies in Higher Education, and the Canadian Journal of Higher Education. A paper based on these findings will be submitted to the British Sociological Association annual conference in 2016.


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