Experiences of Older Undergraduate Students in Higher Education: Constructions of Age and Gender

Massey, Anne (2015) Experiences of Older Undergraduate Students in Higher Education: Constructions of Age and Gender. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


Normative conceptions of age, as with other social markers such as gender, inform how persons are perceived by self and others. This thesis provides a critical view of ways in which age intersects with gender in the context of higher education in Britain. Located with the backdrop of discourses such as 'successful' or 'active' ageing and ‘Lifelong Learning’, experiences of older age are explored in the context of undergraduate study. Drawing on the accounts of twenty-one undergraduate students and six recent graduates, the thesis explores social constructions of older people, and of undergraduate students, and how these constructions play out in participants’ subjective experience of higher education. All (27) participants were aged over forty and twenty were aged over fifty.

Foucault’s notions of Technologies of the Self , including his concept of power, is used here to explore how participants are positioned by, and also resist, normative discourses of age and gender. Judith Butler’s concept of performativity is mobilised to explore how performance of age varies according to gender and between subject roles such as student, friend or partner. I argue that the performativity of age is exposed within undergraduate courses. I contend that the presence of older undergraduate students disrupts constructions of what undergraduate study is, and should be, what it means to be a student, what it means to be a mature student and what it means to be older.

The data are organized in three chapters: starting university, being at university and, then, life outside of university. The study reveals how older students’ claimed space in the university. I show that neoliberal imperatives, such as are contained in discourses of ‘Lifelong Learning’ and 'Active Ageing', become the standards by which individuals are measured and measure themselves. I find that participants’ age-associations, and identity-conceptions as an undergraduate student, have implications for relationships outside of the university and involve changed and changing identities.

The participant's stories reveal varied experiences of student life, and thus unsettle notions of the 'traditional student' in new ways, calling attention to the complexities of what being an undergraduate student is like in contemporary Britain. In uncovering links and contradictions between old age and undergraduate study, I seek to illuminate the experiences and concerns of older undergraduates and to contribute to debates in both the sociology of education and social gerontology.

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