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“Dance to the dominants’ tune” : the impact of institutional habitus on mature students’ study in both England and China

Guan, Shanshan


Shanshan Guan


Catherine Montgomery

Ourania Filippakou

Azumah Dennis


Massification in higher education has been developing globally, with more and more mature students entering university and benefiting from higher education. Because higher education has been anchored in its historical traditions of serving traditional young students (Sissel et al., 2001), institutional habitus tends to be marked by the dominant social groups—the traditional young students (Reay, et al., 2001; Thomas, 2002; Tett, 2004; Gilardi & Guglielmetti, 2011). The institutional structures, pedagogical structure and institutional practices are all based on the need of the dominant group (McDonough, 1997), which may affect mature students’ study as a non-dominant group in higher education.
In order to explore mature students’ higher education experience in both England and China, 37 semi-structured interviews have been carried out including 17 in England from two universities and 20 in China from two universities. Institutional habitus and habitus have been used as theoretical perspective. As a qualitative research under the constructivism, the institutional habitus and how it affects mature students’ study experience are interpreted through mature students’ perceptions. Nvivo software is employed as the data analysis tool and themes emerge from the data construct the research findings. The major findings of the study suggest the appropriateness of the metaphor of “dance to the dominants’ tune and filter out those unable to keep time” (McDonough, 1997:107) which reflects the incompatibility between institutional habitus and mature students’ habitus in both England and China.
More specifically, mature students suffer from exclusion and segregation from their institution, which is manifested in their poor academic and social integration in their institution. This situation is influenced by not only the institutional structure and pedagogical structure, but also mature students’ own self-exclusion, which is presented differently in England and China based on the different higher education systems in the two countries. In England, mature students are entitled to be fully involved in university life academically and socially as their full-time younger counterparts, but because they feel the university is alien and difficult to fit in, they choose to exclude themselves from participating in academic and social activities apart from their lectures. In contrast, in China, due to the incompatibility between the regular higher education system and the
adult higher education system, even though the mature students have their higher education physically in regular higher education domain—the university, they have limited involvement in university life academically and socially because of the actual barriers built up by the university. Furthermore, since the Chinese mature students feel inferior and unconfident about themselves, they choose to avoid involvement into university. The exclusion that the English and Chinese mature students suffer from is described as “soft” exclusion and “hard” exclusion in this research, both of which make the mature students in the two countries generate self-exclusion.
This research suggests that along with the development of higher education massification, mature students in both England and China are still in an unequal position, which reflects the persistence of incompatibility between institutional habitus and mature students’ habitus. The exclusion that the mature students suffer from their institutions affects mature students’ own habitus and forms their attitudes which reproduce the action that the mature students exclude themselves from integrating into the dominant group.
An institutional habitus that embraces diversity will be less discordant with the habitus of students coming from non-traditional’ backgrounds, and enables them to feel less like “a fish out of water” (Thomas, 2002, p. 440). Furthermore, in order to create the inclusive institutional habitus, the institutional structure and practices should involve mature students academically and socially based on their characteristics and specific needs, which could improve the compatibility between the institutional habitus and mature students’ habitus.


Guan, S. (2018). “Dance to the dominants’ tune” : the impact of institutional habitus on mature students’ study in both England and China. (Thesis). University of Hull. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Deposit Date May 2, 2023
Publicly Available Date May 2, 2023
Keywords Education
Public URL
Additional Information School of Education and Social Science, The University of Hull
Award Date 2018-04


Thesis (3.6 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2018 Shanshan Guan. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

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