Pathways to Success in Higher Education

Rethinking the Social Capital Theory in the Light of Institutional Diversity

by Gabriella Pusztai (Author)
©2015 Monographs 278 Pages


Students are influenced by their peer networks instead of the invisible hand of meritocracy. This statement by David Riesman is still true today. The volume analyses how students make use of social connections and the expanding opportunities offered by contemporary tertiary education. The results show that the resources provided by higher education institutions may be termed social capital, adding a new dimension to literature related to students and the institutional environment.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • How context matters in education
  • Social capital in educational research: interpretations
  • Student achievement in a comparative perspective
  • In search of indicators of a school context effect
  • Student success in tertiary education
  • Who gets a degree in Hungarian higher education?
  • Should I stay (on campus) or should I go (to work)?
  • Testing a complex indicator of student success
  • Institutional impact in higher education
  • Social capital in campus settings
  • Embeddedness in interpretive communities
  • The diversity of campus environments
  • Conclusions
  • References


The most important feature of the transformation of higher education in the modern age is expansion. Having begun after World War II, this phenomenon is still being driven by ever increasing social demand. Along with the growth of student participation, the institutional system has diversified – with regional differences – into individual hierarchies of institutional types, sectors and branches of study (Teichler 2008, Zgaga et al. 2014). As the number of students has grown, the organisational complexity within educational institutions has also been increasing. The social demand for higher education is likely to increase further. It is questionable whether this will lead to greater social mobility or not, how the socially diverse student population will be distributed among different regions and institutions, whether a restructured curriculum will favour certain social groups and indeed who will learn what from whom in higher education.

The weak point of the literature analysing the consequences of the expansion is that students are left in the background and the tendency is for researchers to give an increasingly schematic picture of them (Altbach 2009). Even though student representatives were given a say in institutional decision-making owing to the democratisation of higher education after World War II, and new interest groups such as women and minorities have appeared in the system, students are still represented by only a limited amount of statistical data in the specialist discourse. Analyses focus on the behaviour of the macro-level actors of the multi-dimensional and multi-actor force field of educational politics. Priority is given to investigations into organisational aspects, i.e. the network of organisations. Today’s researchers are occupied with the spectacular measures taken within the framework of international and national higher educational politics. The issues and changing principles of control and financing have drawn such intense professional attention that they have overshadowed the cultural changes that have been taking place inside the student population and left them almost unnoticed, deprived as they are of any ringing declarations. Even students’ mobility between the cycles of courses and among regions has generated some interest only because of its relevance to the structural changes within the institutional system. Is it possible that students and their communities are no longer relevant actors in the world of higher education?

According to a model constructed in the 1980s for the international comparison of higher education systems, the higher education policies of a particular country are determined by the balance of power regarding the expectations formed by three major centres of power (Clark 1983), namely the academic oligarchy, state bureaucracy and market subsystems. Each of ← 7 | 8 → them has their own binary code, for the implementation of which they hold the institutions of the higher education system accountable. In the 1990s, critics of this model drew attention to a shift in the value system of the state towards a role that is more sensitive to the logic of the market, holds institutions accountable and evaluates them. They also pointed out that the academic value system had given way to the dominance of administrative-managerial logic (Neave 1998) and that the model can be applied to post-socialist systems only with certain limitations (Tomusk 1997). Since the turn of the millennium, the description of the impact mechanism, usually defined at a national level, has been expanded in the regional and international context because of increasingly specific expectations, which may be different from the expectations formulated at the national level (Hrubos 2010). The other reason why Clark’s model had to be reworked was that previously the centres of power representing different value systems had only included organisational bodies, although the presence of collective interest groups and individual actors also had to be reckoned with (Chen–Barnett 2000, Marginson–Rhoades 2002). Besides, education researchers recommended that it would be advisable to carry out policy analyses at local or institutional levels and to explore prevailing tendencies among students in the local social and cultural milieu (Altbach 2009).

Although student groups do have a major role in negotiating institutional circumstances, researchers still seem to attach little importance to the analysis of their views and relationship networks. The literature has a rather pragmatic, simplified and dualistic image of students: they are looked upon as either customers or products. Both views are related to market-controlled higher education. According to a popular view in the sociology of economy, students are one of the stakeholders with an interest in higher education; they are an interest group influencing its operation, actors controlling their life courses through mainly independent and rational decisions. The logic of their choices is controlled by the invisible hand of the market and those who do not base their choice of institution on efficiency are punished. Others argue that national and global governments – making reference to individuals’ freedom of choice and students’ interests – use students for their own purposes to achieve change (Neave 1998) and refer to them as consumers, since this kind of owner’s individualism is in harmony with the economic dogmas of higher education politics. However, critics warn that although students are called consumers, owing to the patterns of power in the social, historical and economic context they are in a somewhat subordinate position because in a sociological sense they are not adults in full possession of decision-making abilities, do not make rational choices and have deficient and asymmetrical information. Moreover, the conditions of competition are not clear because of the different ways of financing one’s studies and the ← 8 | 9 → socially selective nature of public education and entrance into higher education (Amaral 2008).

The industrial model claims that students as products become the subject matter of research the moment – having come off the conveyer belt – they are released into the labour market. Accordingly, the institution is taken into account only as a production site of standardised technology. Research that uses this approach usually focuses on the short-term convertibility of the student’s degree on the labour market. There are remarkable empirical findings in this field; it has been concluded that the transition between studying and starting work has become longer, and, moreover, the proportion of students who are intent on starting work has decreased, a phenomenon the background to which is yet to be explored (Teichler 2007….). A different student image has been adopted by the model which compares students to patients in health institutions. Accordingly, the function of higher education is to provide “treatment” for students’ diagnoses as established at the beginning of the institutional process. This approach, which concentrates on the institutional impact of higher education, is close to our method of research.

The results presented in this volume are the conclusions of our research in which we analysed the transformations in the paradigm of students' socialisation in a changing educational context and their impact on the success of student careers. Over the past decades higher education researchers’ approaches have been shaped by one-directional and linear reconstruction models of student socialisation. More than half a century ago, the structuralist-functionalist interpretation defined student socialisation as a process during which students learn to live within the frameworks offered and prescribed by the institution, and, as a result, newcomers are integrated into the world of higher education. It looked upon organisational role acquisition as a largely asymmetrical process: under the influence of organisational norms and enforced by sanctions a “ready-made” student is produced, who will sell well on the labour market later. Most documents of educational politics and technical literature on the macro-level phenomena in higher education still reflect this schematic and uniform view. Conflict theory, which also takes a reconstructional view of socialisation, proves the reconstruction of the habitus formed by the social status of one’s family of origin – and thereby the reproduction of social status – by means of a critical study of higher education socialisation. Both models presuppose a uniform pattern of academic socialisation and treat the student population as if it were the same in every institution, sector and country. In this way, their image of students becomes not only uniform but also one-dimensional. The active interactional model of student socialisation extends the characteristics of social learning in groups to include the entire student socialisation process. Owing to the interactions between newcomers and other members of the higher education community ← 9 | 10 → the social construction of student culture is a continuous process operating in the different cycles of study at different institutions and locations. This model looks upon the role of students and the culture of the campus as a joint product. The dispositions of local communities surrounding students (family, peer group, public education environment) all exert a strong influence even at the anticipatory stage of higher education socialisation.

Apart from active and constructive individual participation, the interpretation of student socialisation as a process and the dialogue regarding institutional impacts, a further essential new element of the development of the models is the realisation of the interdependent and reflected character of influences within and outside institutions, which has helped the revision of earlier socialisation theories. This new interpretation also has various pedagogical consequences; for example collaborative methods can gain ground and the range of the institution’s relevant activities will widen with relationship building, dialogues, interactions, group learning and extracurricular and leisure activities.

The reason why student development within the institution has become a current question again in Central and Eastern Europe is because, owing to the unexpectedly large-scale expansion after the recent political transition, the homogeneous social composition of the student population suddenly diversified with the appearance of lower status and ethnic minority students and mothers with young children (Forray 2003, Pusztai 2004, Forray−Kozma 2008, Engler 2010). The umbrella term for these new groups in higher education is non-traditional students (Harper−Quaye 2009). Some researchers believe that the collapse of a unified student culture is due to their appearance (Altbach 2009). In our view, the cultural pluralism of society as reflected in the institutional context has also played a part in the replacement of a common higher education culture with a blend of the sometimes clashing constructions of reality found in diverse interpretive communities.

What students regard as the purpose of their studies and success is rooted in their everyday interactions and the events of their social life, and it is worded in the language they create and use among themselves. From this perspective, real higher education worlds come into life in the way students “talk them into life” in the university canteen or the dorms (Berger−Luckmann 1998). If we are to learn a little more about the world of higher education, we need insights into dominant interpretations among students and we have to know in what kind of interpretive communities they develop their world views (Fish 1980, Burr 1995). At the moment, Central and Eastern Europe are undergoing the very same transformations that were detected by the more sensitive overseas researchers back in the 1960s. Instead of the stimulating power of purposefulness and achievement-orientation, students have begun to be guided by peer influences in their attempts to find their way ← 10 | 11 → within the system (Riesman 1983). That is to say, students primarily learn from their peers. Above all, they learn about the relevant questions and the valid answers to them, and besides – or instead of – Mertonian de jure rules they also internalise de facto rules (Becher 1989). To students, it is the peer group that sets the agenda; the need to meet expectations and the sensors – tuned to receive signals from others and thus encouraging conformity (Riesman 1983:81) – are more influential factors than the “compass” of one’s inner conscious self and aspirations to perform well (Riesman 1983:76). Therefore, the primacy of the traditional intrinsic goals and values of higher education is called into question, and individuals are classified as autonomous, anomic or norm-breaking in relation to the “peer group jury’s” expectations (Riesman 1983: 130). We are convinced that students in our region do shape the profile of higher education much more actively than education politicians, heads of institutions and university lecturers would think. Each student relationship network provides a context of behaviour, which is much more likely to leave a mark than any bold curriculum or innovative education method.

As student relationship networks produce common contextual interpretations, we find it crucial to understand what kind of social constellations come about in higher education, and whether they can be viewed as a campus culture that is made up of students’ views and value systems and is perceivably present over a certain period of time. The main focus of our interest is what kind of relationships serve as resources in the higher education context that can best help students’ advancement. In our opinion, students’ relationships (in both formal and content aspects) and relationship networks lend features to the society of an institution, a faculty or a campus which play at least as important a role in their university careers as individual social status, the structural conditions of the institution and all the planned effect mechanisms put together.

In the expanded and differentiated higher education system there are regularities similar to those in public education. There is a comprehensive higher education system under development, in which growing emphasis is given to the responsibility of higher education for social integration and the inclusion of new student groups. Therefore, further research is necessary on the factors compensating the effects of social status, residential environment and region, which – according to research on public education – are able to modify the process of social reproduction.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (April)
Hochschulpädagogik Soziales Verhalten Studenten Peer Group Higher Education
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 278 pp., 47 tables, 2 graphs

Biographical notes

Gabriella Pusztai (Author)

Gabriella Pusztai is Professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. She is Head of the Doctoral School of Human Sciences and Director of the Center for Higher Education Research and Development, CHERD.


Title: Pathways to Success in Higher Education
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280 pages