"Aspirations of people who come from state education are different": how language reflects social exclusion in medical education

Jennifer Cleland* (Corresponding Author), Tania Fahey Palma

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
19 Downloads (Pure)


Despite repeated calls for change, the problem of widening access (WA) to medicine persists globally. One factor which may be operating to maintain social exclusion is the language used in representing WA applicants and students by the gatekeepers and representatives of medical schools, Admissions Deans. We therefore examined the institutional discourse of UK Medical Admissions Deans in order to determine how values regarding WA are communicated and presented in this context. We conducted a linguistic analysis of qualitative interviews with Admissions Deans and/or Staff from 24 of 32 UK medical schools. Corpus Linguistics data analysis determined broad patterns of frequency and word lists. This informed a critical discourse analysis of the data using an “othering” lens to explore and understand the judgements made of WA students by Admissions Deans, and the practices to which these judgments give rise. Representations of WA students highlighted existing divides and preconceptions in relation to WA programmes and students. Through using discourse that can be considered othering and divisive, issues of social divide and lack of integration in medicine were highlighted. Language served to reinforce pre-existing stereotypes and a significant ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric exists in medical education. Even with drivers to achieve diversity and equality in medical education, existing social structures and preconceptions still influence the representations of applicants and students from outside the ‘traditional’ medical education model in the UK. Acknowledging this is a crucial step for medical schools wishing to address barriers to the perceived challenges to diversity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)513-531
Number of pages19
JournalAdvances in Health Sciences Education
Issue number3
Early online date24 Jan 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2018

Bibliographical note

Our thanks to the General Medical Council (GMC) of the UK for funding the original programme of work, and the admissions staff who gave their time to be interviewed. Our thanks also to the University of Aberdeen’s College of Life Sciences and Medicine (CLSM) Ethical Research Board for granting approval for this study. Our thanks to Kirsty Alexander, University of Aberdeen, UK, and Dr Anne O’Keeffe, University of Limerick, Ireland, for their helpful reviews of the analysis process and manuscript drafts.


  • increasing diversity
  • widening access
  • discourse analysis
  • corpus linguistics
  • othering


Dive into the research topics of '"Aspirations of people who come from state education are different": how language reflects social exclusion in medical education'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this