srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Widening participation, student engagement, alienation, trauma and trust

Caroline S Jones and Zoë Nangah

Social mobility target setting and progression data collection have long been on the agenda for UK HE policy makers and are widely documented, debated and researched (Connell-Smith and Hubble, 2018; Donnelly and Evans, 2018; Social Mobility Commission 2017, 2019; Phoenix, 2021). Widening Participation (WP) policy underpins much Government target setting, dressed up as a key factor in improving the nation’s social mobility issues.  Much of the work undertaken in this field focuses upon the recruitment of students from the WP demographic onto Higher Education (HE) programmes, with data tracking at key points of the student’s journey as a measuring tool (Vignoles and Murray, 2016; Robinson and Salvestrini, 2020; Phoenix, 2021).  However, there appears to be a distinct lack of focus on the student as an individual human being, who arrives into the HE world with prior lived experience, and a lack of consideration of the impact of future life experiences aligned to the student’s individual psychological status.

This omission can have a profound effect on a student’s ability to engage in their programme of study, thus affecting their ability to progress and succeed, contributing to barriers to engagement (Jones and Nangah, 2020). On-entry assessment currently does not capture the presence of traumatic histories, and students may not feel able to fully disclose their experiences until they have established a tutorial connection. Furthermore, HE systems may not have access to information, either on-entry or during studies, that enables appropriate tutorial support and adequate referral, due to GDPR (2018) restrictions and confidentiality principles. Therefore, academic tutorial expertise and understanding how to support students from a psychological perspective might need to be considered using specific relational elements in a humanistic manner. At system level, internal and external support for students focusing on their holistic needs might also improve access and progression.

These ideas led us to conduct a deeper investigation into the psychological needs of students, to seek out methods, practices and potential policy changes which might reduce barriers to student engagement. This new knowledge could enable policy makers, HEIs, HE staff and departments to improve their current practice and  strengthen progress in terms of the national social mobility agenda (Augar, 2019). Examining barriers to student engagement for the WP demographic and specifically focusing on the links between psychological alienation theory (Mann, 2001), trauma and trust (Jones, 2017) in the HE context, led us to this new angle on the conundrum of meeting social mobility targets. Furthermore, recent neurological research, such as brain and amygdala responses to threat within specific groups (Fanti et al, 2020), could be explored further within HE student populations. Students who are affected by trauma could be better supported by using research-informed practices that can then be embedded in HE, focused on individual requirements.

To making a difference to current social mobility rates and targets we need to explore new concepts to inform and drive change in the sector. Our systematic literature review (Jones and Nangah, 2020) focused on the analysis of links between alienation theory (Mann, 2001; Jones, 2017), experiences of prior, existing or present traumatic experiences and the student’s ability to trust in the academic systems within which they are placed. The presence of traumatic emotional experiences in WP student populations connected to psychosocial and academic trust alienation theory contributes to understanding engagement barriers in HE. Using PRISMA guidelines, 43 publications were screened based on inclusion/exclusion criteria. Our review identified students’ experiences of trauma and how this had affected their HE educational engagement. It documented support strategies for student success and improvements in HEIs’ commitment to meeting WP agendas. This underlined the need for HEIs to commit to the social mobility agenda in a way which is aligned with barriers to student engagement. Current tracking and support systems may need to be augmented by tutorial systems and training for academic staff in relational tutorial systems, emphasising the presence of a consistent tutor. Jenkins (2020) suggests a single-session approach for addressing student needs within a short-term counselling model, but recognises this may not be suitable for students with more complex requirements. Thus, longer-term interventions and individualised counselling support approaches are arguably needed to support this demographic. 

To decrease barriers to student engagement we need to focus on psychological well-being and collaborative HEI strategies to improve recruitment, retention and ultimate success. Our systematic review argued that deeper understanding of the complexities of student needs should be embedded within HE teacher training programmes and curriculum delivery. Extending teaching skills to embed psychological understanding and practice delivery skills would not only work to meet Government targets but also raise aspirations: ‘ …with the right approach, the transmission of disadvantage from one generation to the next can be broken’ (Social Mobility Commission, 2017: 8).  Fulfilling the moral and corporate responsibility of HEIs to support the success of WP students might need new insights. Focusing on student engagement in HE with a better understanding  of psychological alienation theory, trauma and trust could be used by multiple HE audiences and across countries to improve practice and drive both political and educational change for the most disadvantaged individuals. It is time to view HE students from WP backgrounds as individuals, to respect their aspirational aims and value their experiences in a way that best suits their subjective requirements, so that they may progress and  succeed, helping to improve social mobility.

SRHE member Caroline S Jones is an applied social sciences professional with extensive experience in the children and young people field and HE programme leadership. She is a Tutor in the Education Faculty at Manchester Metropolitan University and was previously a Lecturer at the University Campus Oldham and at Stockport University Centre. Twitter: @caroline_JonesSFHEA. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/caroline-jones-1bab40b3/

SRHE member Zoe Nangah has been a Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in HE for 16 years across Psychology, Social Sciences, Counselling and Childhood Studies disciplines. She is currently a Senior Lecturer and Course Leader at the University of Chester for the MA Clinical Counselling course. Zoe is a qualified counsellor and supervisor and has conducted research into emotional experiences within student populations and explored perceptions of the support services. Twitter @zoenangah 

References

Fanti, KA, Konikou, K, Cohn, M, Popma, A and Brazil, IA (2020) ‘Amygdala functioning during threat acquisition and extinction differentiates antisocial subtypes’ Journal of Neuropsychology, Volume 14, Part 2. (June 2020) 226-241, British Psychological Society

Jenkins, P (2020) ‘Single session formulation : an alternative to the waiting list’ University and College Counselling Volume 8, issue 4, November 2020

Mann, SJ (2001) ‘Alternative Perspectives on the Student Experience: Alienation and Engagement’ Studies in Higher Education 26 (1): 7–19

Robinson, D and Salvestrini, V (2020) The Impact of Interventions for Widening Access to Higher Education London: Education Policy Institute: TASO

Social Mobility Commission (2017) State of the Nation 2017: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission

Social Mobility Commission (2019) State of the Nation 2018-2019: Social Mobility in Great Britain London: Social Mobility Commission


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The Social Mobility Index (SMI): A welcome and invitation to debate from the Exeter Centre for Social Mobility

by Anna Mountford-Zimdars and Pallavi Banerjee

There is a new English league table on the block! Welcome! The exciting focus of this new ranking concerns social mobility – the clue is in the name and it is called the Social Mobility Index (SMI). Focusing on social mobility differentiates the SMI from other league tables, which often include dimensions such as prestige, research income, staff qualifications, student satisfaction, and employment outcomes.

The SMI is specifically about an institution’s contribution to supporting disadvantaged learners. It uses the OfS model of access to, progression within and outcomes after higher education. Leaning on a methodology developed for a SMI in the US, the English version contains three dimensions: (1) Access, drawing on the Index of multiple deprivation (IMD); (2) Continuation, using progression data into the second year drawing on IMD; and (3) Salaries (adjusted for local purchasing power), using Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) salary data collected one year after graduation.

The SMI report thoughtfully details the rationale for the measures used and is humble in acknowledging that other measures might be developed that are more useful. But do the reflections of the authors go far enough? Let’s take the graduate outcome LEO data for example. These capture salaries 15 months into employment – too early for an outcome measure. It is also not broken down by IMD, there are heaps of missing data in LEO and those who continue into further study are not captured. Low IMD students may or may not be earning the same sort of salaries as their more advantaged peers. The regional weightings seem insufficient in light of the dominance of high-salary regions of both the US and English SMI. These shortcomings make the measure a highly problematic one to use, though the authors are right to endeavour to capture some outcome of higher education.  

We would like a bolder SMI. Social Mobility is not only about income but about opportunities and choice and about enabling meaningful contribution in society. This was recognised in Bowen and Bok’s (2000) evaluation of affirmative action, which measured ‘impact’ not only as income but as civic contribution, health, well-being.  Armstrong and Hamilton (2015) show the importance of friendship and marriage formation as a result of shared higher education experiences. The global pandemic has shown that the most useful jobs we rely on such as early years educators are disgracefully underpaid. The present SMI’s reduction of ‘success’ to a poor measure of economic outcomes needs redressing in light of how far the academic debate has advanced.

Also, social mobility is about more than class, it is about equal opportunities for first generation students, disabled students, men and women, refugees, asylum seekers, global majority ethnic groups as well as local, regional, national and international contributions. It is also about thinking not only about undergraduate student access, progress and success but about postgraduates, staff and the research and teaching at universities.

A really surprising absence in the introduction of this new SMI is reference to the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. These are the only global performance tables that assess universities against the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. First published in 2019, this ranking includes a domain on reducing inequality. The metrics used by the Times Higher ranking are: Research on reducing inequalities (27%); First-generation students (23.1%); Students from developing countries (15.4%); Students and staff with disabilities (11.4%); and Institutional measures against discrimination – including outreach and admission of disadvantaged groups (23.1%). The THE ranking celebrates that institutions also contribute to social mobility through what they research and teach. This dimensions should be borrowed for an English SMI in light of the importance attached to research-led, research-informed and research-evidenced practices in the higher education sector.

The use of individual measures in the THE ranking, of those with parents without a background of higher education (first generation students) and those with disabilities, including staff, has merit.  Yes, individual-level measures are often challenging to ‘operationalise’. But this shouldn’t prevent us from arguing that they are the right measures to aspire to using. However the use of first generation students also highlights that the debate in the UK, focusing on area-level disadvantages such as the IMD or POLAR, is different from the international framing of first generation students measuring the educational background of students.

The inclusion of staff in the THE ranking is an interesting domain that merits consideration. For example, data on, for example, the gender pay gap is easily obtainable in England and it would indicate something about the organisational culture. Athena Swan awards or the Race Equality Charter or other similar awards which are an indicator of the diversity and equality in an institution could be considered as organisational commitments to the agenda and are straight-forward to operationalise.

We warmly welcome the SMI and congratulate Professor David Phoenix for putting the debate centre-stage and note that his briefing is already stimulating debate with Professor Peter Scott’s thoughtful contribution to the debate.  It is important to think about social mobility and added value as part of the league table world. It is in the nature of league tables that they oversimplify the work done by universities and staff and the achievements of their students.

There is real potential in the idea of an SMI and we hope that our contribution to the debate will bring some of these dimensions into the public debate of how we construct the index. This will create a SMI that celebrates good practice by institutions in the space of social mobility and encourages more good practice that will ultimately make higher education more inclusive and diverse while supporting success for all.

SRHE member Anna Mountford-Zimdars is Professor of Social Mobility and Academic Director of the Centre for Social Mobility at the University of Exeter. Pallavi Amitava Banerjee is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is an SRHE member and Senior Lecturer in Education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Exeter.


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Let them eat data: education, widening participation and the digital divide

by Alex Blower and Nik Marsdin

The quest for an answer

As an education sector we like answers, answers for everything, right or wrong. Sometimes we’re more concerned with arriving at an answer, than we are with ensuring it tackles the issue addressed by the question.

Widening HE participation is led by policy that dictates which answers we provide to what questions and to whom. All too often this leads to practitioners scrambling for answers to questions which are ill fitting to the issue at hand, or looking for a quick solution in such haste that we forget to read the question properly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has once again laid bare the stark inequality faced by children and young people in our education system. With it has been an influx of new questions from policy makers, and answers from across the political and educational spectrum.

A magic ‘thing’

More often than not, answers to these questions will comprise a ‘thing’. Governments like tangible objects like mentoring, tutoring, longer days, boot camps and shiny new academies. All of which align to the good old fashioned ‘fake it till you make it’ meritocratic ideal. For the last 40 years the Government has shied away from recognising, let alone addressing, embedded structural inequality from birth. It’s difficult, it’s complicated, and it can’t readily be answered in a tweet or a soundbite from a 6pm press conference.

The undesirable implications of a search for an ‘oven ready’ answer can be seen in the digital divide. A stark example of what access to the internet means for the haves and have-nots of the technological age.

‘So, the reason young people are experiencing extreme inequality and not becoming educationally successful, is because they don’t have enough access to technological things?’

‘What we need is a nice solid technological thing we can pin our hopes on…’

‘Laptops for everyone!’

Well, (and I suspect some voices in the back know what’s coming) access to technology alone isn’t the answer, in the same way that a pencil isn’t the answer to teaching a child to write.

Technology is a thing, a conduit, a piece of equipment that, if used right, can facilitate a learning gain. As professionals working to widen HE participation, we need to challenge these ‘oven ready answers’. Especially if they seem misguided or, dare I say it woefully ignorant of the challenges working-class communities face.

After distribution of the devices, online engagement didn’t change

Lancaster University developed the ‘Connecting Kids’ project during the first wave of COVID-19, as a direct response to calls for help by local secondary schools. The project achieved what it set out to in that it procured over 500 brand new laptops or Chromebooks, and free internet access for all recipients. Every child who fell outside of the Department for Education scheme who was without a suitable device in the home would now have one. Problem solved, right?

Not quite. Engagement in online learning environments prior to the DfE scheme and Connecting Kids initiative in years 8 and 9 was hovering at about 30% of students engaging daily, and 45% weekly. After the distribution of devices, engagement remained at nearly exactly the same level. Further inspection of the data from the telecom’s provider demonstrated that of the 500 mobile connections distributed, only 123 had been activated. Of those 123 only half were being regularly used. Of the 377 ‘unused’ sim and mi-fi packages around 200 showed ‘user error’ in connection status.

Again, this may come as no surprise to the seasoned professionals working with children and young people at the sharp end of structural inequality, but it turned out the ‘thing’ wasn’t the answer. Who would have thought it?

Understanding communities and providing resources

Fast forward 6 months and monthly interviews with participating school staff (part of the project evaluation, not yet complete) show that online engagement in one school is up to 92%. The laptops have played a valuable role in that. They have enabled access. What they haven’t done however, is understand and make allowances for the circumstances of children, young people and families. That has taken a commitment by the schools to provide holistic wrap around services in partnership with other organisations. It has included short courses on connecting to the internet, and provision of basic learning equipment such as pencils, paper, and pens. It has included the school day and timetable being replicated online, live feedback sessions with teachers and learning assistants, and drop-in sessions for parents and carers. Most importantly, it has included a recognition of the difference between home and school, and the impact it has on the education working-class of young people.

Back to policy and widening participation. If we are to make our work truly meaningful for young people, we must critically engage with a policy narrative which is built around a desire for quick fixes, soundbites and ‘oven ready things’. We owe it to the young people who are being hit hardest by this pandemic to take a step back and look at the wider barriers they face.

To do this we may need to reconceptualise what it means to support them into higher education. This starts with challenging much of the policy that is designed to improve access to higher education built upon a premise of individual deficit. The repetitive waving of magical policy wands to conjure up laptops, mentors and days out on campus will only serve to leave us with ever increasing numbers of students and families who are left out and disengaged. Numbers that will continue to rise unless we take the time to engage critically with the complex, numerous and damaging inequalities that working-class young people face.

Reshaping university outreach

This leaves us with something of a conundrum. As HE professionals, what on earth can we do about all of that? Is it our place to address an issue so vast, and so intimately tied to the turning cogs of government policy and societal inequality?

Well, if recent conversations pertaining to higher education’s civic purpose are anything to go by, the answer is undoubtedly yes. And we need to do it better. Within our mad scramble to do something to support young learners during the first, second, and now third national lockdown, our ‘thing’ has become online workshops.

For many of us the ramifications of the digital divide have been acknowledged, but we have shied away from them in work to widen HE participation. We’ve kept doing what we’ve always done, but switched to a model of online delivery which restricts who has the ability to access the content. Can we honestly say, given the disparity in digital participation amongst the most and least affluent groups, that this is the right answer to the question?

Rather than an online workshop series on ‘choosing universities’, would our time and resource be better spent by organising student ambassadors from computing subjects to staff a freephone helpline supporting young people in the community to get online? Could we distribute workbooks with local newspapers? Could we, as they did at Lancaster, work in partnership with other local and national organisations to offer more holistic support, support which ensures that as many students are able to participate in education digitally as possible?

For us, the answer is yes. Yes we should. And we can start by meaningfully engaging with the communities our universities serve. By taking the time to properly listen and understand the questions before working with those communities to provide an answer.

Currently based at the University of Portsmouth, Dr Alex Blower has worked as a professional in widening access to Higher Education for the last decade. Having completed his doctoral research in education and inequality last year, Alex’s research interests focus around class, masculinity and higher education participation. Follow Alex via @EduDetective on twitter.

Nik Marsdin is currently lead for the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden North Project) at Lancaster University. Nik worked in children’s social care, youth justice and community provision for 12 years prior to moving into HE.  Research interests are widening participation, school exclusion, transitions in education and alternative provision. Follow Nik via @MarsdinNik on Twitter.


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Guiding principles for supporting BTEC students

by Chris Bayes

At an SRHE ‘Student Access and Experience Network’ online conference on 19 November 2020, I and colleagues who lead the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) Working Group on ‘Supporting BTEC students’ were privileged to speak about the development of our Group. We also introduced colleagues to the Guiding Principles publication we have recently produced in partnership with Pearson, the UK’s largest awarding body, whose vocational qualifications include Edexcel NVQ and BTEC from entry level to Higher National Diplomas. This blog provides an overview of the development of the Group, our publication and our proposed next steps to support BTEC learners’ progression into higher education.

The beginnings of the Group: NEON, why BTEC learners, and how we developed Guiding Principles

Our Group is one of a number of Working Groups co-ordinated by NEON. NEON is a professional organisation supporting those involved in widening access to higher education. Its Working Groups are led by members and bring colleagues from the widening participation (WP) sector together to take forward a specific agenda or area of practice.

The ‘Supporting BTEC Students’ Working Group was formed in 2018, following a successful initial conference hosted that summer by Brunel University. The conference sought to explore issues around the progression, retention and success of students accessing HE via the BTEC pathway. At our first meeting in September 2018, we invited guest speakers from Association of Colleges, Pearson and UCAS, who gave contrasting views on the post-16 qualifications landscape in England and the role of the BTEC qualification within this. The meeting itself was extremely well attended with around 70 colleagues present. As a NEON Executive member, I was particularly pleased to see the number of teacher colleagues taking part in this meeting – our membership has historically consisted of WP practitioners based in institutions and those working on the UniConnect collaborative outreach programme.  This showed that we were covering an issue which was hugely topical across the sector.

The last decade has seen an increase in the number of learners progressing to higher education having studied a BTEC qualification. One in four students currently gaining access to HE have taken a BTEC National, about 100,000 students. There is a clear correlation between students studying BTEC qualifications and socio-economic status; research undertaken in 2016 by the Social Market Foundation showed 47% of students entering higher education from the most disadvantaged areas (Q1) are BTEC holders.

As a Group, we wanted to work to support the access, progression and success of BTEC students.  Over the course of the past two years, we have refined our focus to developing our Guiding Principles publication, written for colleagues working with BTEC students at each stage of the student lifecycle.

Our Guiding Principles

Following our first meeting, we developed some terms of reference for the Group. Our initial thinking was to develop resources to support teachers and advisors for student progression and to capture the scope of activity taking place to support BTEC learners at each point of the student lifecycle. We are still compiling this information and so if you have an example of practice you would like to share, please let us know!

As the group evolved, we decided to focus on our meetings as opportunities to share practice with invited guest speakers and have used this knowledge to shape our Guiding Principles.  Abstracts of each of these principles are provided below.

  • Championing fair higher education admissions practices for BTEC learners – Dr Alex Blower (University of Portsmouth)

One of the guiding tenets of the NEON Supporting BTEC Students Working Group is to champion fair admissions practices by universities. The group contends that BTEC students, who are often first in their family to attend university, should not have to dig for information about course entry requirements or face additional barriers. It argues that BTEC qualifications should feature as prominently as A levels in prospectuses, and websites, as they are the second most common qualification used for university entrance in the UK. The Group campaigns to make entry requirements/eligibility criteria clear and accessible to BTEC students at all UK HE providers, including Russell Group institutions and those with higher entry tariffs. BTEC learners should be able to establish their eligibility for an undergraduate degree quickly and easily, without the need for them to make further enquiries. If BTEC qualifications aren’t accepted due to course content, the group argues that this should be clearly indicated. The group believes that uniformity and transparency in admissions practices across the sector is a prerequisite to equitable access to Higher Education for BTEC students.

  • Conducting meaningful outreach activity with BTEC learners in schools and colleges – Rebecca Foster (University of East Anglia)

One of the biggest barriers to vocational students entering HE is that pre-entry activity run by Recruitment and Outreach professionals is targeted towards A level students, rather than being focused on their needs. The pre-entry guiding principle champions the need for staff working with students’ pre-entry to be inclusive of vocational learners. This is especially important as learners studying vocational qualifications are often from the most underrepresented backgrounds. Therefore an inclusive approach is paramount, especially from a widening participation perspective. Through raising awareness of the important but sometimes nuanced differences between BTEC and A level learners such as curriculum, learning style, learner identity and learning environment, important changes in promotional language, bespoke events and CPD for college staff can be put in place. The group hopes this will culminate in more vocational learners being aware of HE as an opportunity to them and for practitioners to be equipped to provide appropriate advice and guidance to support their progression.

  • Supporting the transition and student success of BTEC students in higher education – Rebecca Sykes (University of Leeds)

Research shows that BTEC students entering university are more likely to be from a widening participation background, have lower progression and retention rates, be at different starting points in terms of academic preparedness and understanding assessment expectations in HE, and that a sense of belonging is one of the biggest challenges facing this cohort. Our third guiding principle, focusing on transition, attainment and retention, uses the core principles of identify, evaluate, share and embed, to create an environment where BTEC students succeed during their studies and beyond. Valuable, informative and engaging conversations in the group meetings and across conference sessions, has allowed open discussions about the barriers facing this cohort of students, enabling us to recognise how practitioners can be instrumental in their own institutions to help overcome these challenges.

  • Understanding the needs of BTEC students through engagement with research – Chris Bayes (Lancaster University)

There is a lack of effective knowledge exchange between policy makers, practitioners and researchers active in the field of widening participation.  With reference to the progression, retention and success of students accessing university via a BTEC pathway, we have identified gaps in terms of knowledge transfer between practitioners and teachers working with applicants prior to university, and academics working with these students when they are at university. Some traditional universities have been guilty of reinforcing a deficit model perception of BTEC students. For many degree programmes, BTEC students’ prior learning has better prepared them for the progression into HE. By supporting the development of reflective practitioners across the sector, our Working Group is ensuring that staff are able to support today’s increasingly diverse student population, regardless of their prior academic background.

Further information

PDF copies of our Guiding Principles publication can be found via the NEON website – https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/resources/research/. To find out more about Working Group, please visit https://www.educationopportunities.co.uk/programmes/working-groups/supporting-btec-students/ or join our LinkedIn Group – https://www.linkedin.com/groups/8805592/

The Department of Education is undertaking a consultation exercise to review post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England. The consultation proposes a new system for Level 3 qualifications that creates a dual route based on A Levels and T Levels. This proposed new landscape does not therefore see a separate role for BTEC qualifications, which at present offer learners a route into either higher education or employment. If you care about safeguarding the future of the BTEC, you can access this consultation via the following link: https://consult.education.gov.uk/post-16-qualifications-review-team/review-of-post-16-qualifications-at-level-3/. The deadline for this consultation is 15th January.  We will be working with Pearson to deliver a practice-sharing event showcasing case study examples of how the BTEC qualification supports learners at each stage of the student lifecycle.  Should you wish to be involved in this, please get in touch via c.bayes@lancaster.ac.uk .

SRHE member Chris Bayes has worked in the field of Widening Participation (WP) since 2007, holding practitioner and managerial roles in WP teams at a number of universities and previously leading a number of collaborative partnerships in NW England.  Chris is a research-active practitioner and his research paper ‘Blurred Boundaries – Encouraging greater dialogue between Student Recruitment & Widening Participation’ appeared in the Forum for Access & Continuing Education (FACE)’s 2019 Conference publication. Chris has been an Executive Board member of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) since 2015 and has acted as Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since this was established in 2018.


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Admissions tutors’ perspectives on widening access to selective STEM degrees

by Eliel Cohen, Camille Kandiko Howson and Julianne Viola

This blog follows a project supported by the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund, involving interviews with admissions tutors and staff in department-based admissions decisions in STEM fields at Imperial College London, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the three most selective higher education institutions in England. A project report for the full study is available here

Admissions decisions at more selective universities are often made ‘locally’, that is by disciplinary-based academics who will likely be directly involved in teaching students. Given such autonomy, we join Steven Jones, Dave Hall and Joanna Bragg in foregrounding localised admissions practices as key sites of study for understanding widening participation practices and outcomes. In March and April 2020 we conducted eight interviews with individuals holding admissions tutor (or similar) roles in STEM courses at three elite English universities (the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge and Imperial College London).

This post summarises key findings, emphasising that admissions tutors’ perceptions, priorities and practices are often disjointed and disconnected from wider institutional and national policies, grounded in a conservative ethos which slows down the widening of access to selective STEM degrees.

There is fairness and there is ‘fairness’

Fairness was a key theme in our interviews, with all but one participant using the word ‘fair’ or ‘fairness’ explicitly when discussing the key principles of admissions. However, ‘fairness’ tended to have two main meanings which not only differed from but could actively contradict each other. Marginson discusses these contrasting notions of fairness in access to higher education in terms of the competing philosophical traditions to which they relate, drawing on the likes of John Rawls and Amartya Sen. Our findings more closely match the more procedure-focused tradition that Marginson identifies as ‘equity as fairness’, as opposed to the more outcomes focused tradition of ‘equity as inclusion’.

The first and dominant view referred to equal treatment of applicants. This procedural meaning of fairness is not an end in itself but more a means towards ensuring that other admissions priorities were achieved consistently and transparently. First among these was identifying and admitting those applicants with the greatest ‘potential’. We found strong evidence of what has elsewhere been referred to as the potential-based perspective amongst our participants, who consistently used words like ‘high-potential’, ‘high-ability’, or simply ‘the best’ to describe the kinds of students they prioritised and targeted in admissions.

This notion of fairness as a characteristic of procedures which will unproblematically reveal the ‘best’ applicants not only differs from, but can undermine the secondary notion of fairness, one grounded in social justice – in other words, fairness in terms of greater equality of outcomes regardless of one’s background. Some of our participants exhibited at least implicit awareness that there was a potential contradiction between these two notions of fairness, since it is often difficult to see the potential in applicants from less advantaged backgrounds.

On the whole, participants did not see widening participation as a top priority, feeling that there were limits to the extent to which they should be using their role and finite resources to address social inequalities.

Disconnect between admissions policy and practice

The widening participation agenda of the past two decades, and especially the more recent focus on contextualised admissions, implies a shift in admissions practices. Perhaps most obviously it suggests an approach which no longer simply prioritises and privileges those students with easily demonstrable ‘potential’ but rather assesses all applicants’ attainments and abilities in light of the very different contexts in which they have been brought up and educated.

However, what became clear in our interviews was that admissions tutors’ actions and decisions are rarely grounded in the widening participation goals announced by governing bodies and institutional Access and Participation Plans (APP). Rather, in most cases they fell back on what seemed appropriate to their own local context. This resulted in practices which, although sometimes innovative and effective, were disjointed and disconnected from broader widening participation policies and sometimes even counter to them.

For example, some participants said that they might prioritise applicants based on their gender, nationality (but not ethnicity) or age in order to improve the perceived ‘balance’ in their localised cohort, despite no official policies asking them to do so. Other participants felt that any consideration of gender (and protected characteristics more generally) was inappropriate and potentially unlawful.

While we are sympathetic about an interest in a balanced cohort, our findings highlight that admissions decisions are sometimes made on the basis of localised and idiosyncratic perceptions and priorities rather than institutional or national policy. It is not clear, for example, whether a marginal offer would be more likely made to an applicant whose background contributed to perceived ‘cohort balance’ or to an applicant from a widening participation background.

Risk-aversion and the need for data and evaluation

Although all participants expressed support for widening participation in general, they were generally risk-averse in terms of how far they felt widening participation should go. For example, most of our participants were actively or even strongly against lowering grade offers for widening participation students. This view was justified in various ways, for example in terms of concerns about the need to maintain standards of the students and the curriculum, the perceived ‘extra support’ that students admitted on such a basis may require, and the concern that such students would be more likely to perform poorly or drop out. These views were despite an absence of evidence that students admitted on a contextual basis performed worse than other students. This risk-aversion or conservative ethos seems to be a common response to localised admissions decision making.

However, some of our participants acknowledged that one thing preventing them from being able to overcome this risk-aversion was a lack of data monitoring the performance of widening participation students, ideally broken down to the level of students admitted partially on the basis of widening participation and contextual information. Anecdotally, we have reason to believe that this would show that more could be done to widen access, including the increase of lower contextualised offers, without it affecting standards. If nothing else, these data could support evaluation of outcomes of specific admissions practices.

Admissions in England in 2020 were severely disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Whatever new models or workarounds may emerge in the future, evidence suggests that there will continue to be a role for relatively autonomous admissions tutors in selective institutions. Our findings suggest that the sector needs to reflect on how to account for the institutionally situated perceptions and behaviours of admissions tutors if it is going to continue its widening access objectives in the future.

SRHE member Dr Eliel Cohen is a sociologist of education and a research associate at Imperial College London. His forthcoming book with Routledge investigates whether universities in the twenty-first century are thriving or just surviving through an analysis of academic boundaries and boundary-crossing activities.  

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko HowsonisAssociate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research & Scholarship (CHERS) at Imperial College London. She is an international expert in higher education research with a focus on student engagement; student outcomes and learning gain; quality, performance and accountability; and gender and prestige in academic work.

Dr Julianne Viola is a social scientist specialising in young people’s civic identity development, efficacy, and engagement with their communities. Her book, Young People’s Civic Identity in the Digital Age (Palgrave 2020) focuses on experiences of young people living in the USA at a unique time in the nation’s history, and calls for the reinvigoration of civic education for the digital age. Julianne earned her doctorate at the University of Oxford and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Imperial College London.


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More important than ever: the school perspective on outreach in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic

By Neil Raven

In recent months the attention of those working to widen university access has been directed towards understanding and responding to the impact of the pandemic-enforced closure of schools and colleges. However, there is now a need to look further ahead. It seems increasingly unlikely that the new school year will witness the resumption of traditional outreach activities. Indeed, it is possible that those engaged in widening access may be crowded out, as schools and colleges focus on catching up on months of missed work, and as restrictions placed on external visitors and visits by groups of pupils limit opportunities to interact with students. Drawing on the findings from a recent virtual workshop held with teaching and careers professionals at one school, a proportion of whose pupils come from educationally deprived areas, this blog explores the role that widening access could play when the new school term starts and how outreach could be effectively delivered.

The focus on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on young people from under-represented backgrounds has been reflected in recent reports and studies. Responding to the lockdown and the closure of schools and colleges has been a necessary first step. However, we also need to look further ahead. It seems unlikely that the new school year will mark a return to more ‘normal’, pre-pandemic conditions, including the resumption of outreach activity as ‘traditionally’ practised.

When the new school term starts, widening participation could be crowded out (displaced) for two reasons. First, with many young people having been away from school – and formal education – for the best part of six months, the need to concentrate on the curriculum and catch up on what has been missed is likely to be uppermost in teachers’ minds. Should they decide to ‘circle the wagons’, as one teaching contact put it, then outreach might be viewed as a luxury, perhaps even a distraction from the core mission.

The second reason is more practical, in terms of delivering outreach. As Savage suggests, schools are very unlikely to ‘fully re-open’ in September. There may be restrictions on external visitors and outside visits by parties of pupils. Even if external visitors are allowed, the way classes are organised – in peer group bubbles with limits on the numbers congregating in any one place – may well hamper outreach efforts. The threat of sudden local, regional or even national closures should new coronavirus outbreaks occur, would see a halt to any face-to-face and school-based encounters.

However, this is speculation: we need to gather the teaching professionals’ perspective. They are busy individuals facing an unprecedented set of challenges in preparing for the new term, but I was able to arrange a meeting with a small group from one secondary school, a proportion of whose pupils come from disadvantaged backgrounds. That this could be done virtually was a significant advantage, with two of the three participants working from home. It was also conducted on an online platform that these teaching professionals have become very familiar with over recent months. Our discussion took the form of a small workshop with those who could bring a strategic as well as operational perspective. All three had remits that encompassed careers and progression in their roles as deputy head, head of careers, and careers co-ordinator respectively. In addition, the classroom viewpoint was covered since one of the participants was also a teaching member of staff. Consequently, we were able to consider the school’s perspective on outreach, the nature of the outreach challenge faced by its pupils, and what a realistic outreach response might be.

The first reaction of the group was to reject the idea that the objectives of widening access would have to be set aside. Indeed, it was argued that the need to raise awareness and interest in higher education remained highly relevant. In this 11-16 school, this was seen in the context of ensuring students were as ‘prepared as possible’ in terms of the ‘skills and knowledge’ needed for making a successful transition to post-16 study, as well as in being aware of their options at 18. Whilst this was an institutional obligation, it also chimed with a wider ‘social responsibility’, given the ‘make up of our students and the [lower socio-economic] backgrounds some come from’. There was an imperative to ‘get them to aim high’ and support them in fulfilling their ambitions. ‘Without the input from externals’ this was likely to be a harder task.

Similarly, in reply to the suggestion that there would be a considerable opportunity cost to pay for engaging in outreach activity, in terms of the time and energy diverted away from ‘getting on with the curriculum’, reference was made to Gatsby benchmark 4. There is a regulatory requirement that schools and colleges deliver independent careers guidance and the eight Gatsby benchmarks constitute a recommended framework for doing this. This particular benchmark is concerned with embedding careers into the curriculum. In this respect, it was noted that if ‘you are asking staff to spend [a few] minutes saying this will be useful because it can lead you into this job and that job’, then that would not represent a distraction but an important component of their education.

These teaching professionals felt that the need for outreach will become more acute:  the start of the new term would probably reveal additional challenges, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The school staff referred to the impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing, something also recognised in recent studies. Some students, it was argued, will ‘definitely need emotional support, including in cases where parents have been shielding, or where parents who have lost their jobs’.

Another potential issue concerned students’ ‘ability to study’. Some, it was argued, may have lost their ‘sense of routine’ and it is going to be a ‘challenge to get [them] back into [a] work ethic, [especially] if they have not done much’, or have not been able to do much ‘outside school’. Linked to this were concerns over levels of motivation. Some year 10s (14 year olds) may be questioning how they can ‘pass their exams when they have missed so much work’, whilst there was also a concern that some students could, potentially, have become ‘disengaged’. A study by the Education Endowment Foundation discussed a similar ‘risk’ associated with ‘high levels of absence after schools formally reopen’, especially amongst disadvantaged pupils.

It might be claimed that to address such issues represents a case of mission drift for widening access practitioners whose main concern is to support HE progression. The counter argument is that these additional challenges are likely to fall disproportionately on those groups of young people targeted by outreach initiatives. Moreover, the impact of those challenges may not only hinder their educational engagement but negatively affect their progression prospects.

There is also the question of whether delivering outreach might in practice be crowded out. The reality of this challenge was recognised by the group, with reference made to the improbability of being able to engage in the outreach interventions the school has received in the past, whilst ongoing ‘projects’ targeting various under-represented groups were judged unlikely ‘to happen any time soon’ due to social distancing restrictions. However, a revised and blended approach that included some face-to-face engagement but where greater emphasis was placed on online provision, could work.

Regarding the former, it was suggested that any visitors would need to engage with small groups (or bubbles) of learners, and to work within the classrooms pupils will be assigned to for all their lessons. Turning to virtual initiatives, the school was already exploring placing their post-16 options evening – which includes input from local colleges and universities – online, as well as providing ‘extra information’ on the school’s website for parents and carers, including those with older learners. This would include advice on how parents can support year 11s (15 year olds) in preparing for their next post-16 steps, and that could ‘mirror’ the guidance this year group receive in school about college and sixth choices and the accompanying application processes.

The group also discussed how the virtual outreach offer could be developed. Here reference was made to the value of both universities and colleges (including those with HE programmes) providing videos of what higher-level study would be like. These, it was suggested, could include ‘a day in the life of a student’ and outline the range and types of courses available. Such insights and information were likely to be especially appealing if the students profiled were interviewed and if the videos also showed them attending their classes, as well as illustrating the social activities available and what ‘living in halls is like’.

There was also a need for ‘positive role models’ who, if they were not able to visit the school in person, could do so virtually. Those ‘who have had to cope with [challenging] situations and come through them’ were, it was suggested, likely to have particular appeal. Developing this idea, reference was made to ‘someone who could talk about their difficult journey to university and how they had triumphed over adversity’. That, it was added, ‘would be really useful’ since it is ‘about making positive choices’, especially if these individuals were close to the age of the students they would be talking to.

Mentoring was singled out as a particularly valuable intervention that could, if required, be conducted online. If the sessions took place in school and were supervised by a member of staff, safeguarding measures could be more easily met. Indeed, it was suggested that the challenge could be in securing enough mentors to meet the demand, especially if what was offered included elements of subject enrichment and study support.

Similarly, an online option for embedding careers into the curriculum was identified. Short 3-4 minute videos could be shown in class featuring those in graduate-level occupations talking about what their roles involve and how they trained to do their jobs. These would be especially welcomed if they related to the subjects the students were studying. Such videos could provide a ‘360 degree view of where’ their subjects work. In addition, longer versions of these videos could be shown during registration period, when ‘we do job of the week’. Being aired in class or during registration could also overcome issues around digital access at home and, the ‘digital divide’ that means some learners, often those from poorer backgrounds, have comparatively limited access to the internet, due to a lack of laptops and other devices, as well as the necessary and often expensive data.

Finally, whilst pre-recorded video content had a number of advantages, notably in being accessible whenever required, there could be a role for live links, as long as the technology was in place. Motivational speakers telling their story in real time was likely to have a greater impact than if their message was recorded. Live coverage also offered the chance for interaction with presenters.

In closing, the group emphasised the imperative for outreach practitioners to listen to schools and colleges. Whilst this has always been the case, the need to pay careful attention is perhaps more critical than ever, given that individual institutions are likely to vary in the arrangements they make for the new school year. A small, virtual workshop of the type adopted here may offer a suitable mechanism for gathering these insights and in facilitating the co-production of an effective outreach response to the challenges (both old and new) facing those from under-represented backgrounds.

Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at neil.d.raven@gmail.com

My thanks to Suzanne Whiston, Deputy Head, Jan Woolley, head of careers, education and guidance, and Tim Taylor, careers lead, at Murray Park School, Derby, for their time, insights and expertise.

References

Armour, S (2020) ‘Young men most likely to break lockdown rules, mental health study shows’ (7 May) University of Sheffield https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/news/nr/young-men-most-likely-break-coronavirus-lockdown-rules-psychology-mental-health-study-1.888316

Booth, S (2020) ‘Heads reissue calls for a plan B as PM says September reopening a ‘national priority’’ (31 July)  Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/heads-reissue-calls-for-a-plan-b-as-pm-says-september-reopening-a-national-priority/.

The Careers and Enterprise Company (2020) Gatsby Benchmark,https://www.careersandenterprise.co.uk/schools-colleges/gatsby-benchmarks/gatsby-benchmark-8.

Cornforth, C (2014) ‘Understanding and combating mission drift in social enterprises’, Social Enterprise Journal, 10 (1): 3-20, https://oro.open.ac.uk/39882/1/SEJ%20paper%202013%20revised-final.pdf.

Education Endowment Foundation (2020) Rapid evidence assessment Impact of school closures on the attainment gap,https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/REA_-_Impact_of_school_closures_on_the_attainment_gap_summary.pdf.

DfE (2018) Careers guidance and access for education and training providers. Statutory guidance for governing bodies, school leaders and school staff  Department for Education,https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/748474/181008_schools_statutory_guidance_final.pdf.

Helm, T and McKie, R (2020) ‘Teachers and scientists sound alarm over plans to reopen schools in England’ (2 August The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/aug/01/now-teachers-sound-alarm-over-plans-to-reopen-schools.

Helm, T, McKie, R and Sodha, S (2020) ‘School closures ‘will trigger UK child mental health crisis’’ (20 June) The Observer https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/20/school-closures-will-trigger-uk-child-mental-health-crisis

Horrocks, S (2020) ‘Bridging the digital divide: evidence and advice on remote learning and digital equality’, Education Development Trust

https://www.educationdevelopmenttrust.com/our-research-and-insights/commentary/bridging-the-digital-divide-evidence-and-advice-on.

O. Khan. 2020. ‘Covid-19 must not derail efforts to eliminate equality gaps’, WonkHE, https://wonkhe.com/blogs/covid-19-must-not-derail-efforts-to-eliminate-equality-gaps/

Machin, S, and Murphy, R  (2014) ‘Paying Out and Crowding Out? The Globalisation of Higher Education’, Centre for Economic Performance, Discussion Paper No 1299http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/60451/1/dp1299.pdf.

Moss, G (2020) ‘5 reasons to be cautious about estimates of lockdown learning loss’ (1 August) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/5-reasons-to-be-cautious-about-estimates-of-lockdown-learning-loss/.

National Foundation for Educational Research. 2020. Schools’ Responses to Covid-19: Pupil Engagement in Remote Learning, https://www.nfer.ac.uk/media/4073/schools_responses_to_covid_19_pupil_engagement_in_remote_learning.pdf (accessed: 22 June 2020).

Office for Students (2020) Uni Connect https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/uni-connect/.

Ørngreen, R, and Levinsen, K (2017) Workshops as a Research Methodology

Rainford, J (2020) ‘Moving widening participation outreach online: challenge or opportunity?’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education (online 30 June 2020)

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/13603108.2020.1785968?needAccess=true.

Raven, N (2018) ‘The development of an evaluation framework’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 22 (4), 134-140

Raven, N (2020) ‘Covid-19 and outreach: the challenge and the response’, Widening participation and lifelong learning, 22(2) 255-263.

Roach, P (2020) ‘The digital divide affects teachers as well as their pupils’ (4 May) Schools Week

Robinson, G (2020) ‘The digital divide continues to disadvantage our students’ (29 May) Schools Week https://schoolsweek.co.uk/the-digital-divide-continues-to-disadvantage-our-students/

Savage, M (2020) ‘Full September return unlikely, with schools warning: ‘it’s not business as usual’ (31 May) The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/may/31/full-september-return-unlikely-with-schools-warning-its-not-business-as-usual.

Speck, D (2020) ‘Exclusive: Covid-19 ‘widens achievement gap to a gulf’’ ((29 May) Times Educational Supplement https://www.tes.com/news/coronavirus-widens-achievement-gap-gulf


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Welcome to the new second class: Covid negative with underlying health conditions

by Katherine Deane

HE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

First please understand the risks – you are given a bowl with 100 sweets in it. You are invited to pick one to eat. But, you are warned two of those sweets will kill you, 18 of them will make you so ill you will be hospitalised, but most people find their sweets OK.

Have a sweet.

No? These are the risks the average person runs with Covid-19.

Now, let’s make you over 70, or with an ‘underlying health condition’, so your bowl of sweets has up to 15 that will kill you and most of the rest will hospitalise you. I hope you’ll agree no sane person would voluntarily eat those sweets.

But I can guarantee in weeks to come I will be gaslighted; told I am over-reacting, being over-cautious as I continue to self-isolate. You see I am at higher risk because I have multiple disabilities which mean my capacity to be resilient in the face of Covid-19 is reduced. I’m not at highest risk, but I would expect to be hospitalised at least with Covid-19.

So, when the lockdown is released and you can “get back to normal” spare a thought for people like me. We will be staying indoors, working from home (where we can), and hoping to not pick up Covid-19 as it sweeps through our communities again and again. Yes, the numbers of those infected will be lower, the risk reduced, but would you want to risk eating even a single sweet from that second bowl? Every trip outside, every meeting, every class, every hospital appointment, will offer people like me another chance to catch Covid-19. And until we have a vaccine – likely to be at least 2 years away – this will be our life. We will be living in ‘splendid isolation’.

This will affect people who previously would never have identified as disabled – asthmatics, diabetics, anyone over 70. Their lives will be disabled by the need to not catch Covid-19. For up to 2 years. We have lives to lead even if they are restricted by Covid. So, we hope that you remember us and continue to offer to get our shopping. We hope that friends will still call us. That theatres and bands will still offer us virtual viewings. For those in education, whether at school or university, we hope that these institutions continue to support online learning for students who fear returning to the large crowded classrooms and lecture theatres.

We hope (probably against hope) that the government will protect workers’ rights to not take a sweet from that toxic bowl, and that whether we are in the highest risk group or just have ‘underlying health conditions’ we are allowed to work remaining isolated if we choose to. We may wish to work from home, and we would like that to be a right where possible. We may need retraining if our previous work role can’t be performed virtually. We would love it if working from home was not implied to be shirking. We would love everyone to remember how difficult ‘splendid isolation’ is to live in.

And remember this is likely to affect huge numbers of people – I guesstimate at least 20% of the working population. With skills and talents and value that should not be wasted just because of a virus. Covid-19 is going to have massive impact on society. Let’s not allow it to create a new disabled underclass isolated and having to make invidious choices between poverty and health.

Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening


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Don’t call me vulnerable

by Katherine Deane

SRHE staged a joint seminar with the National Association of Disabled Staff Networks (NADSN) on 21 July 2020, after NADSN published a Position Paper on “COVID-19 Post-Lockdown: Perspectives, Implications and Strategies for Disabled Staff” on 21 May 2020. The paper provides a list of 12 recommendations for higher education institutions to consider when planning for reopening campuses. Seminar participant Katherine Deane (East Anglia) gave her take in this, the first of two blogs.

Covid-19 came along and suddenly we had a whole new dictionary of terms to learn. Social distancing, social isolating, shielding. But some of the terms were already ‘known’ and came with their own baggage. Some people were told they were vulnerable and should shut themselves away – shield themselves from the virus. But as my 79 year old fiercely independent mother said: “I’m not vulnerable, I’ve never been vulnerable in my life.” And she was right – she was at high risk of poor medical outcomes if she were to catch the virus – but she wasn’t vulnerable – she was in a vulnerable situation.

Disabled people, people with underlying health conditions, older people, have the same rights to life as anyone else. We are not vulnerable. But this virus – and the governmental response to it – does place us at higher risk. But risks are something that can be reduced, mitigated, done something about. Risks are the responsibility of all of us to manage, whereas vulnerability lies with the person – and there is nothing that can be done about that.

These labels – vulnerable, elderly, frail, with underlying health conditions, disabled – became an excuse to dismiss the deaths. Oh well, what could you expect – they were already ill and then they got Covid-19, so of course they died. The government reassures the public still – it’s only if you are ‘vulnerable’ that you need fear this virus. But it’s become clearer and clearer that this has allowed a great toll of unnecessary deaths to be excused. The language has prevented criticism and deeper examination of why these people died. After all, they were vulnerable – so they must have contributed less, been a burden on society. The responsibility for their response to the virus was laid upon their shoulders. These people are vulnerable – there is little we can do – so let’s shrug our shoulders. Should they even expect them to have the same access to healthcare, social support, or respect even, as a fit healthy young person does? Their deaths are ‘to be expected’.

But what if the tables were turned – if the virus took the young and fit preferentially. Would there still be stories of the deaths of ‘vulnerable young people’ dying – so sad, but what can you expect? Would they be told off for going outside? Would they be expected to shut themselves away for potentially years on end as they wait for a vaccine? Doesn’t sound so ‘reasonable’ or ‘expected’ now, does it?

We are now seeing that this virus highlights many of society’s inequalities. That it is more likely to kill you if you are black, poor, live in an area of high air pollution. Are these ‘vulnerabilities’ too? Or are they risks? This virus has placed a magnifying glass on some of the structural biases within our society. Are we seeing institutionalised eugenics by neglect?

So, watch your language. As a disabled person I am at risk of an early death from many things, including this virus. We can do – and need to do – something about these risks. Don’t ignore your responsibility for calling for change by calling us vulnerable.

Dr Katherine Deane is a wheelchair using Senior Lecturer in Health Sciences and Access Ambassador at the University of East Anglia. She is working to remove barriers to accessing life so people can express their brilliance. Post Covid-19 re-opening guidance with a focus on disabled visitors available here https://embed.org.uk/covid-19-reopening


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Research that works for everyone: using inclusive methodologies to understand aspirations of higher education towards desistance from offending

by Mark Jones and Debbie Jones

In this Blog we share our experiences of conducting research with adults that have offended or are at high risk of offending and who also experience other challenges relating to mental health, substance use, housing, health, and education. This is our second Blog that discusses a project, funded by SRHE, which sought to understand the role of Higher Education in facilitating aspirations of those at risk of offending/reoffending who wish to desist from offending behaviours. You can read the first Blog that presented the findings of the study here. This blog focuses on two interlinked aspects of the project: the methodological philosophy we adopted in the study; and the use of a Pictorial Narrative Approach to data collection and analysis.

The study was the first of its kind in Wales as it set out to examine the role of Higher Education within the context of prevention of offending/reoffending within a community setting. A key strength of the project was that it brought together academics, third sector and statutory agencies (who seek to support and divert adults at risk of first time offending and those seeking support with desistance from offending) and those at risk of offending/reoffending. The research was therefore very much a partnership and this was a key value and driving force of the research.  We offer three areas of interest for this partnership project with The Hub who offer provision for ex-offenders, their families and the wider community.

Values versus Rules

Our study adopted an anti-oppressive approach and was underpinned by a hybrid approach of participatory action and community engagement and learning. It therefore worked with those at risk of offending/reoffending as partners and sought to empower and encourage aspiration by carrying out research through ‘doing with’ rather than ‘researching on’ participants. With this in mind, it challenged some of the accepted guidelines for effective research design – one example being our decision to move away from the more accepted text book guidance regarding focus groups size (Stewart et al, 2014) and structure (Sim and Waterfield, 2019).

Many researchers prescribe focus group size and conclude that five to eight is an effective size, with others suggesting that focus groups with over twelve participants loose coherence and value (Ochieng et al, 2019). In addition, Sim and Waterfield (2019) discuss the ethics of focus groups and suggest that the researcher(s) need to ensure all voices are heard, which can be difficult due to group dynamics and dominant voices – especially so within discussions that are of sensitive contexts such as our research. Indeed, in addition to recalling their experiences of education in the context of offending, many of our sample expressed experiences of multiple challenges and barriers in their day to day lives which might lead some to consider them as ‘vulnerable.’

However, one of the key strengths of the project was that through collaborative discussions with our research partner ‘The Hub’, it became apparent that to limit the number of participants and try to organise smaller groups would in fact lead to feelings of alienation and exclusion. It was abundantly clear that if we wanted to understand the experiences of the participants – many of which were traumatic and still ‘raw’, then the structure of the focus group had to be engaging, therapeutic and most importantly, on the terms of the members of The Hub. Therefore, to carry out the focus group in line with ‘text book’ instruction would have been in total contradiction to the philosophy of the organisation and indeed our inclusive ‘research with’ approach.

Adopting the view that the value/ethos of the project outweighed the ‘rules’ of focus group design, led us to break with convention and support all sixteen members of The Hub who turned up on the day to participate in the focus group. The members who participated that day shared their experiences of education and also of vulnerability, not only with us but with the wider group. Indeed, Gordon (2020) suggests that in acknowledging the vulnerability of participants in research, consideration needs to be given to the seriousness of it and researchers should develop their approach in relation to the lived context – and this is what we did whilst in the room that day. At times the conversation fluctuated away from the crib sheet of questions as participants struggled to articulate the day-to-day challenges they experienced – some of which are evident from the pictorial accounts in this Blog.

Creative Narrative Approaches that Enhance Storytelling

Sandberg and Ugelvik (2016) point out that ‘story telling’ is nothing new and is in fact a facet of our humanistic behaviours that helps us to make sense of the world we inhabit. Many cultural criminologists have adopted a narrative approach within their research and in recent years have started to explore the role of visual methods as a way to enhance knowledge and engagement with research, to provide a break with the taken for granted view of social reality, and to ‘democratise’ crime control (Francis, 2009; Brown, 2014; Carr, et al, 2015; Sandberg and Ugelvik, 2016).

As researchers with an extensive background in supporting marginalised communities and using qualitative methods in research, we were really drawn to using a fairly new approach called ‘Pictorial Narrative Mapping’ which has been identified as providing a holistic, nuanced account of the phenomena under study (Lapum et al, 2015). We really appreciated that whilst many studies have used creative means of data collection such as drawing, poetry or photography to enable those with limited confidence, linguistic or literacy capacity to participate fully (Glaw et al, 2017), some have pointed out that not all participants have the capacity to be creative (Brown, 2014). Therefore, adopting the Pictorial Narrative approach enabled the members in the focus groups to vocalise their response whilst observing the analyst draw her interpretations of their views. We found this approach worked really well in that it captured the discussions clearly and in a way that the focus group members could see and therefore relate to. This approach as it was ‘live’ also motivated people to comment, acknowledge and start new threads of conversation which meant immediate triangulation of data analysis which is something that has been identified as bringing about increased trustworthiness of the findings (Glaw et al, 2017).

It was clear the process and approach was positive and arguably therapeutic with all members thanking us for the opportunity to take part in the pictorial approach, as the following quote and visual representation summarises:

“This is great! Can we have a copy and then we can go back every couple of weeks and think about what we said today and see if we getting to where we want to be.”   Pete

A ‘strengths’ outcome for participants

Dybicz (2011) discusses the use of a strengths-based approach in social work practice and concludes it requires a shift in thinking from the practitioner and movement to supporting people to reflect, identify and self-direct their own positives and future development goals. Zimmerman (2013) suggests that when using such an approach in research, the process should offer a safe space to reflect on positive factors that can be acknowledged and utilised to transform to new goals, aspirations, and future directions.

These notions capture this research’s philosophy and desired impact and outcomes well. The impetus for the project came from the community and the ethos of the Hub is that the service is user led, and so using this approach gave all sixteen participants a strong voice. All members were heard and listened to with their stories captured accurately by the artist. Each of their narratives was illustrated and at the end of the engagement event the participants were delighted to see that all their voices were included.

However, it was also apparent that the participants saw the value in this method as a way to measure their own progress and future intentions as the quote above demonstrates.  Measuring any form of intervention or personal development towards desistance has been shown to be problematic but as Pete’s quote illustrates, there is power in narrative/visual methods in enabling those at risk of offending to  acknowledge where there are, the strengths they possess and the transition to their new identity – whether that is through HE or something else.

It was clear therefore that members had identified their strengths and felt more positive following the focus group with a greater sense of self-worth. This is illustrated well by John, a participant who was really emotional after the focus group and came back to thank us for supporting him to have his voice heard.

“I’ve never in all my life have someone just listen to me and let me speak, and you know, really listen. It has made me so happy, I really feel good and I can look to the future. Thank you.” John

Conclusion

The benefits of using a value driven process and a Pictorial Narrative Mapping approach to this project are clear. Using more creative, inclusive, and non-standard approaches can be extremely useful from a scientific point of view, offering deeply satisfying and valued experiences for both research participants and researchers. The impact and outcomes of such approaches offer shared power and clear ethical integrity and when working with some of the most vulnerable people in society also create contexts where there is personal growth from being part of the research process and so in this way an embodiment of a strengths approach to social research. So in conclusion we would suggest that when appropriate, be bold and step away from the confinement of the methods texts that sometimes holds us back as researchers and endeavour to make those societal changes happen in practice. Our research might not change how Higher Education reaches out to those at risk of offending across the whole sector but what we have done is enabled those without a voice, to feel valued and heard and, in our view, this has been the true value of this project.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain.

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc. 

Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

You can read the full report of this research for the SRHE here.

References

Brown, M (2014) ‘Visual Criminology and Carceral Studies’ Theoretical Criminology 18(2): 176-197

Carr, N, Bauwens, A, Bosker, J, Donker, A, Robinson, G, Sucic, I, and Worrall, A. (2015) ‘ Picturing Probation: Exploring the Utility of Visual methods in Comparative Research’ European Journal of Probation 7(3): 179-200

Dybicz, P (2011) ‘Interpreting the Strengths Perspective Through Narrative Theory. Families in Society’ The Journal of Contemporary Social Services 92.10.1606/1044-3894.4132

Francis, P (2009) ‘Visual Criminology’ Criminal Justice Matters, 78

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16: 1-8 

Gordon BG (2020) ‘Vulnerability in Research: Basic Ethical Concepts and General Approach to Review’ The Ochsner Journal 20(1): 34–38 https://doi.org/10.31486/toj.19.0079

Lapum, J, Liu, L, Hume, S, Wang, S, Nguyen, B, and Harding, K (2015) ‘Pictorial Narrative Mapping as a Qualitative Analytic Technique’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 14(5)

Ochieng NT, Wilson K, Derrick CJ, and Mukherjee N (2018) ‘The use of focus group discussion methodology: Insights from two decades of application in conservation’ Methods Ecol Evol 2018 9:20–32 https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.12860

Sandberg, S and Ugelvik, T (2016) ‘The Past, Present and Future of Narrative Criminology: A Review and an Invitation’ Crime, Media and Culture 12(2): 129-136

Sim, J., Waterfield, J. Focus group methodology: some ethical challenges. Qual Quant 53, 3003–3022 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11135-019-00914-5

Stewart DW, Shamdasani PN, and Rook DW (2014) Focus Groups. Theory and Practice (3rd edn) Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications

Zimmerman MA (2013) ‘Resiliency theory: a strengths-based approach to research and practice for adolescent health’ Health education and behavior: the official publication of the Society for Public Health Education, 40(4): 381–383 https://doi.org/10.1177/1090198113493782


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Higher Education and Desistance from Offending

by Debbie Jones and Mark Jones

It is often the case that those entrenched in patterns of offending find it difficult to stop due to stigma, discrimination and other structural issues limiting opportunities to bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice, 2010; Shapland and Bottoms, 2011). Several studies have concluded that studying within Higher Education (HE) can be a significant ‘hook for change’ offering development of personal agency and widening positive social networks, key factors towards desistance (Lockwood et al, 2012; Runell, 2017).

Yet, despite widening access to HE being a global endeavour (Evans et al, 2017), the Prison Education Trust (2017) highlight that HE can feel unwelcoming for those with a criminal record. Evans et al (2017) found that, despite a drive to widen participation and access to HE in Wales, the internal culture and narrative can become ‘entangled, reinforcing the status quo at the expense of developing non-traditional student participation such as adult learners.

This blog shares our research carried out in Swansea, Wales which was funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project explored the aspirations, barriers, and challenges for those at risk of offending to study in HE and considered what might be needed to support the desire to desist from offending within the context of a HE setting. The data collection phase consisted of two engagement events: one for those that had offended or were at risk of offending and were members of our partner and host organisation ‘The Hub’ (n = 16), and the other with practitioners who worked with people at risk including two participants who were also studying at Higher Education and had offended (n = 10).

We adopted a Pictorial Narrative Approach as a data collection tool and community engagement activity (Glaw et al, 2017). We will talk more about the Pictorial Approach and share some of the visual data in a forthcoming blog but for now, we want to share some of the key findings from the project.

It was clear from the data that aspirations, short and long term, varied but there was a common desire to ‘get back on track’. This was articulated as achieving better mental health and well-being which was seen as a ‘daily struggle’, securing employment, with some of the group wanting to use their own experiences to help others, and the development of positive family ties and relationships.  Such aspirations have been identified as key drivers to desistance (McNeill 2019) and might be the necessary pre-requisites before any consideration can be given to embarking on higher education.

However, one of the more concerning factors from the data was the impact of previous education. 12 participants reported negative educational experiences, feeling like a ‘lost soul swimming in a fish bowl’. Many recounted negative learning experiences within the classroom such as, ‘getting the answers wrong’ and being ‘told off’ leading to feelings of embarrassment and intimidation. A majority of participants identified other forms of educational exclusion such as learning difficulties and bullying. Such experiences left the participants with feelings of alienation and resentment of the whole education sector. For participants who had been to prison it was often ‘the beginning of their education’ where they found hope and aspiration. Prison education was viewed as offering opportunity to develop basic skills such as reading and writing and for one participant it offered the chance to pursue a higher level of education at university on release from prison.

In terms of barriers and challenges to accessing HE, most of the participants were sceptical of HE and identified university as marketing itself as a vehicle for gaining employment but really ‘just wanted the money.’ Three of the participants in the first group had attended university and felt the level of debt acquired in the pursuit of a degree was excessive with no guarantees that it would lead to a job. Indeed, funding of a degree was a perceived as an insurmountable barrier for the group. All participants from the first group were claiming benefits and felt university was out of reach because of the trade-off between state support and the notion of ‘degree debts’. Even something as simple as paying for public transport to get to university was seen as problematic.

There was recognition however that university could help people gain confidence and improve their well-being if the issue of exclusion/rejection for previous offending could be addressed. One participant reported, ‘I applied for university but they rejected me because of my conviction, only drink related offences mind you, but they rejected me anyway but even when I walk across the campus now I feel proud and it makes me walk with my head held high – the university has a good vibe about it’.

Indeed, there was a strong sense of despondency amongst the group who felt their convictions would prevent them from going to university. One participant reported that he had been told that he needed to be ‘clean from drugs for two years before I can start doing courses, it’s really fucking hard’. Another participant articulated the views of the group when he said, ‘if you have the money they’ll take you but not if you have a conviction’.

The findings from this pilot study suggest that HE can offer people who have offended, or are at risk of offending, the opportunity to develop positive personal agency. However, for that to happen universities need to reconfigure how HE is delivered in the truest sense of widening access. This might include: the delivery of HE in partnership with prisons and existing community rehabilitation programmes to overcome issue of stigma and increase confidence; training for student services to meet needs of those students with a criminal record or at risk of offending; and, better outreach and marketing of HE and student loan systems to those at risk of offending. You can read the full report on the project at http://www.srhe.ac.uk/downloads/reports-2018/JONESdebbiemarkReport.pdf

Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.a.jones@swansea.ac.uk, Twitter @debjonesccjc.

Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain. Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.

References

Evans, C, Rees, G, Taylor, C, and Wright, C (2017) ‘Widening Access to Higher Education: The Reproduction of University Hierarchies Through Policy Enactment’ Journal of Education Policy, 34(1): 101-116

Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 16: 1-8

Lockwood, S, Nally, J, Ho, T, and Knutson, K (2012) ‘The Effect of Correctional Education on Postrelease Employment and Recidivism: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study in the State of Indiana’ Crime and Delinquency, 58(3): 380-396

McNeill, F (2019) Rehabilitation, Corrections and Society Retrieved July 01, 2019, from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/159625/7/159625.pdf

Ministry of Justice (2010) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Available at: http://www.safeground.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Desistance-Fact-Sheet.pdf

Prison Education Trust (2017) To be Truly Inclusive, Universities Must Help Prisoners Feel They Belong. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/aug/16/to-be-truly-inclusive-universities-must-help-prisoners-feel-they-belong

Runell, LL (2017) ‘Identifying Desistance Pathways in a Higher Education Program for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(8): 894-918

Shapland, J, and Bottoms, A (2011) ‘Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists’ Punishment & Society 13(3): 256–282 https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474511404334