‘Low income doesn’t mean stupid and destined for failure’: challenging the deficit discourse around students from low SES backgrounds in higher education
Written by Jade McKay and Marcia Devlin
The discourse around students from low socio-economic backgrounds often adopts a deficit conception in which these students are seen as a ‘problem’ in higher education. In light of recent figures pointing to an increase in the number and proportion of these students participating in higher education and an absence of evidence to support deficit thinking, this deficit discourse requires re-examination. Qualitative data from 115 interviews carried out across 6 Australian universities as part of a national study reveal that, contrary to the conception of these students as a ‘problem’, students from low SES backgrounds demonstrate high levels of determination and academic skills and that they actively seek high standards in their studies. This paper critically examines deficit conceptions of these students, drawing on findings from qualitative interviews with 89 successful students from low SES backgrounds and 26 staff members recognised as exemplary in their provision of teaching and support of students from low SES backgrounds. Drawing on these findings, this paper challenges the deficit discourse and argues for a more affirmative and nuanced conception of students from low SES backgrounds.