Why Am I Less Than the Others? A Biographical Study of First Generation Students’ Vulnerability in Portuguese Higher Education

Ana Sofia Ribeiro

Abstract

The economic crisis that hit Portugal in 2010, and the consequent International Monetary Fund intervention have called for austerity measures that affect the country’s welfare state and required severe cuts in higher education funding, which are shifting higher education costs from public to private. While such cuts affect all students, first generation students from working class backgrounds raise greater concern. Taking into consideration the overall socio-economic context, this contribution analyses the biographical narratives of 25 first generation students from one Portuguese campus and illuminates how their specific cultural environment, limited economic resources and unstable social support policies shape their university experience. The research is theoretically informed by the parity of participation conception of justice of Fraser (2007), which requires dismantling all economic, cultural and political obstacles that prevent people from becoming full partners of society. Fraser’s framework is coupled with the vulnerable subject vision of Fineman (2008) and the capabilities approach of Sen (1997). Biographical data was collected through the problem centred interview method, and the analysis privileges a cross case comparative perspective. Findings show the cumulative nature of vulnerability that affects these students, leading to situations of material and emotional parentalisation, from which the state offers no valid protection.

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