by Neil Raven
Efforts to widen higher education access have tended to focus on the provision of information and supportto those from under-represented backgrounds. This is perfectly understandable given the deep inequalities in HE progression rates that persist. However, such a focus can mean that insufficient attention is given to the student voice, and to listening to what they have to say.
The opportunity to do just this was presented in two small research projects I recently worked on (Raven, 2021a and 2022). In both instances, the principal aim was to understand better the challenges to HE progression faced by those on advanced level applied and professional courses (including BTECs) at a Midlands based further education (FE) college. The first study sought the views of those on two different courses. The follow-up focused on two further subject areas. For context, progression rates are generally lower from FE colleges than sixth forms. Moreover, compared with their A-level counterparts, a noticeably smaller proportion of those on what are sometimes referred to as ‘vocational courses’ go onto higher-level study (Baldwin et al, 2020). Focus groups were used to capture the student voice. All participants were in the final year of their level 3 programmes and on courses that would qualify them for university entry, if they chose this option. The numbers were necessarily small (14 in total), given the emphasis on gathering in-depth insights. Whilst the discussions addressed the main focus of the research, they also provided an opportunity to explore the reasons why some had decided against HE.
As would perhaps be expected, a number of the reasons offered related to factors that were pushing them away from HE as an option. They included concerns over the cost of university-level study. These were not confined to the initial outlay (including student fees) but also to the implications. ‘You are’, it was argued, going to ‘get into debt’ if you choose HE. Also referenced was the potential time and effort involved in ‘sort[ing] out student finances and funds’, as well as the strains that would be placed on their social networks. You will, it was observed, be ‘away from friends and family.’ In addition, focus group members talked about the associated workloads. ‘It is the effort’ of doing assignments, one participant noted and, it was added, ‘you get loads of them at university.’ For one group in particular reference was made (correctly) to there being no obvious, or direct higher-level qualifications they could go onto. ‘There is not a natural overarching progression’, it was observed.
However, whilst they expressed reservations about HE, an equal if not greater emphasis was placed on the attractions (the pull) of their non-HE choices. Those planning on employmenttalked about the appeal of ‘getting a job’ and wanting to leave full-time education behind. ‘Now I feel like I just want to be in work’, one participant noted. There was also the prospect of ‘earning money’ and the chance to ‘feel more independent’, and to ‘leave the rules behind and progress my life under my set of conditions.’ Some also observed that for their chosen sector and career ambitions a level 3 qualification was sufficient to offer a number of options, including setting up their own business.
Three observations emerge from these two studies. The first concerns the value of research to the field of widening participation. Here a contrast can be made with evaluation which, understandably, has become a preoccupation for the sector. Indeed, on those occasions when the voices of learners are sought, the emphasis tends to be on capturing their views about the support they have received. Yet, stepping back from the focus associated with outreach evaluation and taking time to the talk with – and listen to – the same learners can be a very enlightening experience and, as Levin-Rozalis (2003) notes, lead to ‘new insights’.
The second observation concerns the means by which these voices can be captured. Whilst surveys and questionnaires have been mentioned in this role, focus groups have greater potential since discussions can be participant-led and are able to capture the views and experiences of learners in their own words and language. Significantly, those deployed in the two profiled studies were conducted online. This was largely out of necessity, since the research was conducted during the pandemic when in-person access to students was very limited. However, one feature of online focus groups is that they tend to run with smaller numbers than their face-to-face equivalents. Those deployed in the two studies profiled were made up of between three to five participants. Whilst smaller numbers are recommended in enabling effective management of virtual groups, this also meant (fortuitously) that more was learned about the ambitions and motivations of each participant.
The third observation relates to how the findings from the two studies can be interpreted. In almost every case, the decision not to pursue full-time higher education did not mean abandoning the idea of further training. Instead, reference was made to the attractions of securing an apprenticeship, including the opportunity this pathway presented for ‘learning on the job and getting paid.’ Participants also talked about other work-based training opportunities, including specific job-related schemes offered (and paid for) by employers. For some who were already in part-time work, these related to their current employers. In other words, these students were interested in advancing their education on terms that met their needs and interests, including in relation to how, where and when training would take place, and what it would entail. More research is certainly needed, with focus groups offering one way of capturing the learner voice. However, the findings from these two small studies suggest that if we are to widen access in the transformative way that the Office for Students, as the HE regulator for England, has alluded to, then perhaps the sector needs to respond to what those it seeks to recruit want, rather than expect students to be the ones having to adapt.
Neil Raven is an educational consultant and researcher in widening access. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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