The Society for Research into Higher Education


Looking back to look forward at the student experience

Leave a comment

By Mary Stuart

Attempting a review of work on the student experience over the last 50 years is daunting. The concept of the ‘student experience’ is so defuse and covers so many areas  that any review would be partial. However I will attempt to discuss what themes I believe to be important as they have emerged in research on the student experience in HE along with what questions have been asked by researchers of these themes and how these themes and questions relate to the rapidly, it seems looking back, changing higher education landscape.

I wish to place this discussion in the context of what I believe are the two overarching policy narratives which have shaped higher education since 1965 which have therefore driven the research and impact agendas for the student experience. The relationship between policy and research is complex, sometimes with research questions developing because of new policies and sometimes with research influencing new policy.  However all research on the student experience can be seen as deriving from the processes of the Massification and Marketisation of higher education, the two meta-narratives for HE in the last 50 years.  I will begin with Massification.

The concept of Massification in HE comes from Trow (1970) in his seminal discussion of the stages of the development of higher education; elite, mass and universal. Clearly the Robbins Report (Committee on Higher Education, 1963) which recommended the opportunity for all who had the ability to benefit from HE to be able to take a degree was the justification for expansion.  Robins needs to be seen in the context of a much wider global growth in HE including in the USA and other parts of the Western world post the second world war. It was recognised that if countries were to compete successfully higher level education for more people was necessary.  Equally, although Robbins agreed with the policy, recommending grants for students rather than paying fees as students had done up until the 1960s, was a recommendation from the Anderson Review in 1961.

However the increase in the number of Universities, the introduction of grants for students and the creation of the polytechnics in the later part of the 1960s and early 1970s provided many more opportunities for students to get into higher education.  Core debates on the student experience and students which are still discussed in research and the media developed at this time. What is currently called widening participation, widening access or social equity in HE was discussed in relation to the expansion with Kingsley Amis commenting that ‘more was worse’ (Tight, 2012), an idea still current in debates today.  The ‘new’ students were seen as different and even Robbins said of the new students that ‘too many entrants cannot themselves express themselves clearly in English and have an inadequate understanding of basic mathematical principles’ (Committee on Higher Education, 1963: para 570).  Research on student support and the needs of students began to emerge partly as a result (Myers, 2013) but there was little discussion as such, until the 1980s, on issues of student diversity, such as gender, ethnicity, class and disability.

The most rapid expansion of higher education in the UK took place in the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s. This expansion brought in more and diverse students; women who had missed out on higher education earlier in their lives because of prejudice about women’s role in society; minority ethnic students from aspirational parents and the reclassifying of professional qualifications into higher education.  New qualifications to enable mature students gain access to HE were developed in particular the Access movement which provided extensive research opportunities (Ryle and Stuart, 1994) Research into the student experience during this phase was dominated by investigations into women’s education  (Thompson, 2000) and adult and part-time learners (Taylor and Ward, 1986; West, 1996) , picking up on the changing nature of the student body.  Part-time students of course always paid (subsidised) fees themselves.

During the mid 1990s Sir Ron Dearing, later Lord Dearing, was asked to undertake a review of higher education. The report in 1996 recommended the re-introduction of fees for full-time undergraduate home students.  Many of the recommendation from Dearing were taken up by the new Labour government in 1997. This created considerable interest in researching the impact of fees on student behaviour and student debt itself became an area of considerable interest for researchers (Callender and Jackson, 2004) , particularly when fees were increased and income contingent loans were introduced in 2003.  The policy was influenced by research and practice in Australia (Chapman, 2006) and the work of Barr and Crawford (2005) in the UK.  Equally significant in terms of creating further research questions from the Dearing review affecting the student experience was the development of the Institute for learning and teaching , latterly the Higher Education Academy, and the new Labour government’s commitment to reaching the 50% of under 30 year olds having some experience of HE.  This shifted the research questions away from mature students to younger students and the creation of school, college and university partnerships to raise aspirations and attainment to enter HE created a new interest in HE research in the experience of students before they came into Higher Education (Kintrea, St Cair and Houston, 2011).

Questions of social equity in higher education are global and many of the issues raised in research in the UK were also highlighted in research in other countries (Osborne, 2003).  Concern about retention of particular groups of students led researchers to explore work from Tinto (1993) in the USA on ‘persistence’ and concepts of learning from Australian researchers such as  Prosser and Tigwell (1999) and Ramsden (2003).  Debates between researchers became keen. Quinn and Thomas (2006) argued that research and institutions were creating a deficit model of students from ‘widening participation backgrounds’ rather than exploring the institutional ‘Habitas’ which ‘othered’ difference (Archer, Hutchins and Ross, 2003). Concepts such as ‘belonging’ (Wilcox et al, 2005; Stuart, et al,2011a)  began to circulate and researchers have increasingly discovered the importance of the role of friendship and personal relationships (Ecclestone, 2007, Stuart, 2006). Alongside this work further research on the student experience beyond the classroom has suggested that different students engage beyond formal study differently with their institutions (Little, 2006; Stuart et al, 2011b)  As a result many institutions developed their practice around the early stages of a student’s time in HE, increasingly providing support for induction and the first year experience began to affect practice in Universities (Yorke and Thomas, 2003).

Higher Education has always had a market but this market historically focused on tariff, with students ‘buying’ institutions with their final school grades. However, marketisation in HE began to develop when UK Universities were allowed to charge fees for International students in the 1980s.  This started a significant growth in the recruitment and retention of students from emerging countries whose HE systems were during the 1990s and 2000s not yet sufficiently developed to cope with the demands of their growing middle classes. Research into cross cultural understanding, learning systems and internationalisation asked necessary questions to support the increase in international recruitment in UK institutions. (Turner and Robson, 2007).

Marketisation in English institutions expanded significantly through policy changes between 2010 and 2015. While new Universities have continued to be established throughout the last 50 years, the significant change has been the increase in private and for-profit providers.  At the same time the government had increased fee levels paid by income contingent loans to 9,000 pounds and lifted the cap on numbers of undergraduates who could be recruited by any one institution. Research on the student experience moved into areas of marketisation and neo-liberal agendas in HE and new researcher on ‘student choice’ developed (Reay et al 2005; Stuart, et al, 2012b), exploring and critiquing rational choice theory and suggesting that ‘choice’ is dependent on experience and access.  Further work on the critique of neo-liberalism and questions of social justice is new growing as the sector changes further (Burke, 2012) and critiques of marketisation approaches to teaching and learning from Ashwin et al (2015).

As value for money is an increasing theme of policy makers in HE concern has been expressed about higher education as a motor for social mobility and research into social mobility, class and HE has expanded (Stuart, 2012a; Blanden et al, 2005).  Recently research suggests that there is a hollowing out of lower middle class jobs in Western societies due to technological change and globalisation (Sissons, 2011).  This will affect opportunities for further social mobility.   At the same time other researchers have explored ethnicity and attainment in HE (Broeke and Nicholls, 2007; Richardson, 2008 and Stuart et al, 2011a). Researchers such as Wakeling (2010) have also argued that postgraduate study has a real class bias towards the middle classes. This work has affected recent policy announcements to create a loan system for PGT and PGR students.   Most recently there is real interest in how HE can demonstrate its value for graduate employment (Brennan, (2004). The OECD has conducted research into graduate attributes through its AHELO project and there is clearly scope for further research in this area of ‘learning gain’, which the higher education funding council currently calling for pilot studies on learning gain.

Research into the student experience has expanded considerably alongside the expansion of higher education itself. Insights into different student experiences of access to HE, completion of study and success for graduates has highlighted the need for more understanding and appreciation of different experience within the HE environment and has changed practice in institutions (Yorke and Thomas, 2003). However further work in the area of HE and social justice is still needed to ensure institutions and policy makers are addressing issues of equity. As new forms of higher education emerge, how the student experience changes and what opportunities or barriers these new forms provide will provide further research questions in the future.

Professor Mary Stuart is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lincoln


Archer L, Hutching M and Ross A (2003) Higher Education and Social Class London: RoutledgeFalmer
Ashwin P, AbbasA  and McLean M  (2015)  Representations of a high quality system of undergraduate education in English higher education policy documents Studies in Higher Education 40( 4) p. 610-623
Brennan J (2004) Graduate Employment: issues for debate and enquiry International Higher Education (34) p 12-20
Burke, PJ (2012) Accessing Higher Education: Widening Participation, Migration and Gendered Subjectivities Encyclopaideia  Special Issue International Migration and Social Justice Education 2 (34) XVI  (accessed 2013)
Barr N and Crawford I (eds)  (2005) Financing Higher Education. Answers from the UK Abingdon:Routledge
Blanden J,  Gregg P and Machin S (2005) Social Mobility in Britain: low and falling (accessed 2010)
Broeke S and Nicholls T (2007) Ethnicity and Degree Attainment Research Report:RW92 London DfES
Callender C and Jackson J (2004) Fear of Debt and Higher Education Participation Families and Social Capital ESRC Research Group: London South Bank (accessed 2008)
Chapman, B (2006) Income Related Students Loans: Concepts, International Reforms and Administrative Challenges, in Teixeira, P.N., Johnstone, D.B., Rosa, M.J. & Vossensteyn, H. (ed.), Cost-sharing and Accessibility in Higher Education: A fairer deal?, Springer, The Netherlands, p 51-77
Committee on Higher Education,(1963) (The Robbins Review) Report London HMSO
Ecclestone,  K (2007) Resisting images of the ‘diminished self’: the implications of emotional well-being and emotional engagement in education policy Journal of Education Policy 22 (4) p 455-470
Kintrea K, St Clair R and Houston M (2011) The Influence of parents, places and poverty on educational attitudes and aspiration  Joseph Rowntree Foundation (accessed 2011)
Little B (2006) The Student Experience and the impact of social capital in McNay I (ed) (2006)Beyond Mass Higher Education Maidenhead: SRHE-OUP
Myers, J (2013) Why Support Students: Using the past to understand the present, Higher Education Research and Development 32 (4) p 590-602
Osborne M (2003) Policy and Practice in Widening Participation a six country comparison of access  International Journal of Lifelong Education 22 (1) January-February p 43-59
OECD AHELO Project Third report (accessed 2015)
Prosser, M and Tigwell,K. (1999) Understanding Learning and Teaching: the experience in higher education. Birmingham, SRHE-OUP
Ramsden P (2003) Learning to Teach in Higher Education London: Routledge
Reay D, David M and Ball S (2005) Degrees of Choice Social Class, race and gender in Higher Education Stoke:Trentham Books
Richardson T (2008) The attainment of ethnic minority students in UK higher Education  Studies in Higher Education  33 (1) p 33-48
Ryle M  and Stuart M (1994) ) A Curriculum for Women? A Case study from Brighton Journal of Access Studies 9 p 9 – 15
Sissons P (2011) The Hourglass and the Escalator Labour Market Change and Mobility The Work Foundation (accessed 2012)
Stuart M (2006) ‘My Friends made all the difference’. Getting into and succeeding at University for first-time entrants in Journal of Access Policy and Practice (Summer, 2006) p 27-40
Stuart M, Lido C and Morgan J (2011a) ) Personal Stories – How students’ social and cultural life histories interact with the field of higher education with Lido C and Morgan J International Journal of Lifelong Education  30 (4) p 489-508
Stuart M, Lido C, Morgan J Solomon L and May S (2011b) The Impact of Engagement with Extracurricular Activities on the student Experience and Graduate Outcomes for Widening Participation Populations Active Learning in Higher Education 12 (3) p 203-215
Stuart M, Lido C and Morgan J (2012a) Choosing a Student Lifestyle? Questions of taste, cultural capital and gaining a graduate job in Hilton-Smith T (ed)  (2012) Widening Participation in Higher Education: Casting the net wide?  London:Palgrave
Stuart M (2012b) Social Mobility and Higher Education The life Experiences of first Generation Entrants in Higher Education Stoke: Trentham Books
Taylor R and Ward K (eds) (1986) Adult Education and the Working Class Education for the Missing Millions London Routledge
Thomas L and Quinn J (2006) First Generation Entry into Higher Education: an international study Maidenhead:SRHE-OUP
Thompson, J (2000) Stretching the Academy: The Politics and Practice of Widening Participation in Higher Education, NIACE
Tight, M (2009) The Development of Higher Education since 1945 Maidenhead:SRHE-OUP
Tinto V (1993) Leaving College: rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition 2nd edition Chicago: University of Chicago Press
Trow M (1970) Reflections on the Transition from Mass to Universal Higher Education Daedalus 99 (1) p 1-42
Turner, Y. and Robson, S., 2007. Competitive and cooperative impulses to internationalization: reflecting on the interplay between management intentions and the experience of academics in a British university  Education, Knowledge and Economy 1 (1) p 65-82
Wakeling P (2010) Inequalities in Postgraduate Education a comparative review in Goastellec G (ed) (2010) Understanding Inequalities in, through and by Higher Education Rotterdam: SENSE p 61-74
West, 1996 Beyond Fragments Adults, Motivation and Higher Education Abingdon:Taylor and Francis
Wilcox P, Winn S and Fyvie-Gauld M (2005) ‘It was nothing to do with the university, it was just the people’ : the role of social support in the first year experience in higher education Studies in Higher Education 20 (6) p 707-722
Yorke M  and Thomas L, (2003) Improving Retention of Students from Lower Socio-economic Groups Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 25 (1) p 63-74

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

Leave a Reply