"It's making contacts": notions of social capital and implications for widening access to medical education

S. Nicholson* (Corresponding Author), J. A. Cleland

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Citations (Scopus)
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In the UK widening access (WA) activities and policies aim to increase the representation from lower socio-economic groups into Higher Education. Whilst linked to a political rhetoric of inclusive education such initiatives have however failed to significantly increase the number of such students entering medicine. This is compounded by a discourse that portrays WA applicants and students as lacking the essential skills or attributes to be successful in medical education. Much of the research in this area to date has been weak and it is critical to better understand how WA applicants and students negotiate medical admissions and education to inform change. To address this gap we amalgamated a larger dataset from three qualitative studies of student experiences of WA to medicine (48 participants in total). Inductively analysing the findings using social capital as a theoretical lens we created and clustered codes into categories, informed by the concepts of "weak ties" and "bridging and linking capital", terms used by previous workers in this field, to better understand student journeys in medical education. Successful applicants from lower socio-economic groups recognise and mobilise weak ties to create linking capital. However once in medical school these students seem less aware of the need for, or how to create, capital effectively. We argue WA activities should support increasing the social capital of under-represented applicants and students, and future selection policy needs to take into account the varying social capital of students, so as to not overtly disadvantage some social groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)477-490
Number of pages14
JournalAdvances in Health Sciences Education
Issue number2
Early online date14 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - May 2017

Bibliographical note

Our thanks to the Medical Schools Council (MSC) of the UK for funding Study A; REACH Scotland for funding Study B; and Queen Mary University of London, and to the medical school applicants and students who gave their time to be interviewed. Our thanks also to Dr Sean Zhou and Dr Sally Curtis, and Manjul Medhi, for their help with data collection for studies A and B respectively. Our thanks also to Dr Lara Varpio, Uniformed Services University of the USA, for her advice and guidance on collating data sets and her comments on the draft manuscript.


  • lower socio-economic groups
  • meritocracy
  • social capital
  • undergraduate medical education
  • under-representation
  • weak ties, bridging and linking capital
  • widening access


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