Aspirations, austerity and agency: adult women learners in the English FE sector and the capacity to aspire in an austerity context

Suart, Rebecca Mary (2021) Aspirations, austerity and agency: adult women learners in the English FE sector and the capacity to aspire in an austerity context. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.

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The Kennedy review (1997) prompted a dramatic rise in the number of adult women learners in Further Education (FE), which at its peak reached almost 3 million. However, a narrowing of policy goals and austerity cuts over the past fifteen years have seen this figure plummet by more than half. In the context of productivity and austerity, women learners who do not immediately progress into employment are deemed a poor return on investment. And yet, it is somewhat surprising that given the sharp cuts to the sector, as well as their gradual erasure from policy discourse and research, adult women continue to represent the majority of all learners in FE. Against this harsh backdrop, it is important to understand why women return to FE and VET and what they hope to gain from doing so.

Located within a feminist inquiry, this longitudinal study aims to understand the aspirations of women learners, how they are shaped by past experiences and the ways that they navigate towards their goals. The in-depth narrative interviews with twenty- one women learners on a range of VET programmes, provides a rich understanding of the complex nature of aspirations and how these are shaped by their biographies. The complex and dynamic nature of women learners’ aspirations have been conceptualised using Arjun Appadurai’s ‘capacity to aspire’ (2004) and Debraj Ray’s ‘aspirations window’ (2006), along with feminist economics theories on the gendered constraints on choice and agency.

The findings illustrate that women learners often return to FE in response to a personal crisis whereby for a variety of reasons, education is central to their hope of making a ‘fresh start’ and rebuilding their lives. As women learners progress towards their aspirations, it becomes evident that they are not only complex, dynamic and socially situated, but are also powerfully shaped by agency and the everyday structural constraints that they must navigate in order to participate such as care, work, lack of financial resources, gender norms and competing preferences. The heterogeneous and diverse sample revealed that while women experience similar gendered constraints, those who are BME, lone parents, and/or migrants, experience them more acutely. At the same time, all the women in this study achieve broader gains beyond their original aspirations such as confidence, a greater sense of agency and well-being. This is important as it seems to have the most positive impacts on those who start the course with difficult biographies and challenging lives.

This study not only contributes a much-needed contemporary perspective on women learners’ experiences in the FE sector but offers crucial insights about the important role it plays in their hopes and aspirations of rebuilding their lives. The feminist economics lens brings into sharp relief how in the context of austerity, instrumental policy goals fail to take account of the complex intersectional disadvantages that women learners face in their everyday lives, and how they navigate the responsibilities of care and work so that they can pursue their own interests.

Item Type: Thesis (University of Nottingham only) (PhD)
Supervisors: McGrath, Simon
Jones, Susan
Keywords: FE, VET, Vocational education, Women Learners, Women,Education (Higher), Aspirations, Feminist Economics, Austerity
Subjects: L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC1001 Types of education, including humanistic, vocational, professional
L Education > LC Special aspects of education > LC1390 Education of special classes of persons
Faculties/Schools: UK Campuses > Faculty of Social Sciences, Law and Education > School of Education
Item ID: 65955
Depositing User: Suart, Rebecca
Date Deposited: 31 Dec 2021 04:40
Last Modified: 31 Dec 2023 04:30

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