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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Supporting disadvantaged students is more expensive than you think

By Marcia Devlin

A national election looms in Australia and while no-one is under any illusion about the likelihood of higher education being a key issue for the Australian public when they are considering for whom to vote, those in the sector are hopeful that, at the very least, higher education policy common sense will prevail. Depending on your particular higher education interests, the focus of such policy common sense will differ. For me, at least partly, the focus will be on equity policy.

I recently led to completion a national study that looked in part at the costs of supporting students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds in Australian universities. We used a mixed methods approach, incorporating quantitative analysis of national higher education data and qualitative exploration and validation.

The complexity of university finances, the opaque nature of equity funding and the generally low level of understanding of the precise costs of supporting low SES students in the sector provided challenges to meeting the project brief. That said, we used data from 37 universities over ten years and a sophisticated quantitative methodology and detailed consultation with senior executives at four universities on the quantitative findings to test their validity. The results were, as one Vice-Chancellor described them, “stunning”.

We found that the average costs of supporting low SES undergraduate students are around six times higher than the costs of supporting medium and high SES students. This was for a university with an average number of undergraduate low SES enrolments. At the postgraduate level, the average support costs for low SES students are around four times higher than those for medium and high SES students for a university with an average number of postgraduate low SES students.

These are, indeed, stunning findings.

We found that the kind of additional support needed by students from low SES backgrounds includes: outreach support to raise aspiration and relevant individual capital prior to enrolment; academic, personal and financial support while at university; and in some cases, support to care for students with highly complex needs.

We found that the additional cost incurred in supporting a low SES student compared to other students include those inherent on the support listed above and additionally, the costs inherent in the interventions required to address disadvantage throughout school and university.  We found that the costs of establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple and/or regional campuses, particularly but not only those located in highly disadvantaged communities, also contributed to the cost differentials.

In simple terms, we found that universities that are strongly prioritising or enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions.

Because low SES students are not a homogeneous group, we found that additional support costs are not the same for all low SES students. As will be unsurprising to those working with equity group students, depending on their particular background and circumstances, low SES students may experience different levels of disadvantage and/or multiple disadvantage. In the four universities consulted, there were different costs in, and different approaches to, supporting low SES students. This was partly because of the differences in the universities’ missions, the number and geographic locations of campuses, whether the student was undergraduate or postgraduate and the characteristics of the particular low SES students for whom support was being provided.

There are a number of policy implications that an incoming Australian government might like to consider:

  • Given universities that are enacting missions to address disadvantage have higher costs than universities with other missions, moving from activity-based to mission-directed costing may be a fruitful area for further exploration.
  • Given that the costs of supporting low SES students are four to six times higher than those of supporting medium and high SES students, consideration could be given to applying the principles of ‘cost compensation’ in university funding for low SES numbers. In rudimentary terms, this would mean that each low SES student would attract four times (postgraduate level) to six times (undergraduate level) more funding than otherwise like students.
  • Given the lack of homogeneity of low SES students and the differential costs for different universities in supporting low SES students, consideration could be given to the distribution of funding to support low SES students according to the investment/cost need of a university/campus/area in which a campus is located, rather than according to the number of students at each university who meet the technical definition of ‘low SES’. This would also help reduce perverse incentives to seek only the least costly low SES candidates.

I’m not overly optimistic about these findings being immediately embraced and celebrated by either side of politics. I am hopeful, however, that a government genuinely interested in equity might recognise that properly funding universities to enact their missions might be purposefully conceived as an investment that lowers social disadvantage and ultimately improve economic outcomes for both graduates and communities. In other words, I’m hoping policy common sense will prevail.

SRHE Fellow Professor Marcia Devlin is Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Senior Vice-President at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. The study referred to above was funded by the Australian government through the National Priorities Pool


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Estranged Students in Higher and Further Education

by Yvette Taylor

This report is based on research by Yvette Taylor (Strathclyde) and Cristina Costa (West of England) as part of an SRHE funded project ‘Exploring ‘Estrangement’ in Higher Education: Standing Alone or Settling In?’

Estrangement feels very taboo… it’s almost like having to out myself a lot of the time to people… people are more familiar with the idea that your parents are divorced or have died or whatever“ (Jennifer, 31)

It’s like a rope round you pulling you back as you’re going forward, but I don’t think it’s a barrier that stops, I think it’s a barrier that’s just there and to be aware of.” (Robert, 29)

Estranged students can be defined as a group of young adults who have unstable, minimal or no contact with their parents and/or their wider family networks. In the context of Scotland estrangement status among students was only recognised in 2016 through campaigning initiatives supported by Stand Alone and ButtleUK. To date, only seven Scottish universities and colleges have explicit policies in place to support this group as signatories to the Stand Alone Pledge.

Little is known about the experiences of estranged students either in the UK or internationally: based on interviews (n=23), this study represents the first of its kind in Scotland, exploring how estranged students navigate education structures and the institutional and interpersonal resources available. It examines estranged students’ further and higher education experiences, identities and expectations, how these are supported and managed and what educational and employment aspirations are fostered and developed. While it is clear that steps have been made in helping education institutions identify and support estranged students, often estranged students do not fit pre-existing widening participation policies or funding categories (eg Bland, 2018; UCAS, 2017); discretion, care and flexibility are needed.

Students become estranged from their families for a number of reasons, including emotional and physical abuse, clash of values and mismatched expectations around family roles. In addition, estrangement can also relate to ‘divorce, honour-based violence, forced marriage, and family rejection of LGBTQI+ students’ (Blake, 2015).

Research Findings

  • Definitions of estrangement are restrictive and inflexible, offering little understanding or appreciation of the complexity of estrangement experiences and practices and hardships: the Office for Students limits the status of estrangement in higher education to students between 18 and 24 years old and stipulates that estrangement means no communicative relationship with either living biological parent (2018), a definition also shared by the Student Loans Company (2016). It can be very difficult to ‘prove’ the status of estrangement under such restrictive conditions.
  • Definitions of estrangement shape the identities and realities of those who are formally associated with it and who can become, or fear becoming, victims of scrutinisation and unfair surveillance strategies, justified in the name of anti-fraud detection. Often monitoring approaches do not take into account the specificities, vulnerabilities or characteristics of estranged students (Bland, 2018).
  • Estrangement does not cease or become irrelevant when a student reaches the age of 25. Even when young people leave the family home it ‘continues to be the site through which many of their individual biographies and expectations are routed’ beyond the tidy age of 25 (Valentine et al, 2003: 481).  This signals the complexity in defining ‘youth’ and the significance of this (expanding) point in the life-course of an individual, especially when they may lack the social and economic support that they are assumed to receive via family.
  • Although well intentioned, supporting structures only cater partially for the needs of estranged students who are often considered from the perspective and experience of traditional students, with ‘add-on’ support recognising additional financial hardships. The intersection of financial, social and emotional needs still has to be taken into account.
  • There are enduring similarities in the experiences of estranged students, with many reporting, for example, experiences of homelessness, severe financial hardship, mental health issues, disrupted study, etc. Experiences of estrangement can lead to a strong sense of difference and exclusion within further and higher education contexts. As colleges and universities claim readiness to welcome a diverse student body, there is a need to acknowledge the complexity of students’ lives, encompassing an approach inclusive of those do not fit within a regular or expected pattern of what it means to be a student.
  • While there are group commonalities, little is known about the differences in estranged students’ experiences, in terms of such issues as race, class, gender and sexuality, a knowledge gap that requires research attention. Students’ struggles need to be accounted for intersectionally rather than through a tick box exercise of widening participation/diversity agendas to which institutions sign up. The Stand Alone Pledge has to be agreed, actively implemented and monitored.  
  • Inclusion of estranged students in academia does not stop at entry point; to measure entry as success would be to ignore the challenges students bring and carry with them throughout their studies, and indeed beyond. Positioning students as ‘non-traditional’ can encourage a deficit perspective (and labelling students as ‘disadvantaged’ may strengthen stereotypes rather than contest them). This ‘othering’ of students from non-traditional backgrounds may well foster a sense of difference, with institutional variations in student integration.
  • It is important to consider students’ own definitions, as well as resistances and personal strength evident in all interviews. Often students face isolation, uncertainty, financial instability and experience or fear of homelessness, and yet have still secured a place at college or university using whatever limited resources, personal and practical, they have to navigate barriers to their academic success.
  • Family estrangement is often regarded as a form of deviance and interference in relation to both unquestioned assumptions and the cultural imagination that ‘a family is forever’ (Sharp, 2017). This is problematic in that such an approach casts estrangement as an anomaly that requires fixing, whereas family estrangement is becoming a more prevalent reality in modern society (Conti, 2015). 

It [estrangement] seems negative that you’re either cut off or cut yourself off from your family, and normally that comes with the attachment of ‘what have they done wrong for that to happen?’ (Robert, 29)

[estrangement comes with] a degree of further responsibility and further pressures that not everybody has to experience.” (Dylan, 28)

So I think financially it is a big difference [from peers who are not estranged]. As well as like focusing on my studies I need to focus on an income.” (Ingrid, 22)

Maybe they [students who are not estranged] can have worries about other things, but they will never lack food, they will never have to worry about rent or stuff like this.” (Martin, 22)

References

Blake, L (2017) ‘Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: a review and discussion of the literature’ Journal of Family Theory & Review 9 (4): 521–36 https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12216

Bland, B (2018) ‘It’s all about the money: the influence of family estrangement, accommodation struggles and homelessness on student success in UK higher education’ Text. July 2018. https://doi.org/info:doi/10.5456/WPLL.20.3.68.

Conti, RP (2015) ‘Family estrangement: establishing a prevalence rate’ Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science 3 (2): 28–35 https://doi.org/10.15640/jpbs.v3n2a4

Scharp, KM (2017) ‘‘‘You’re not welcome here”: a grounded theory of family distancing’ Communication Research, June https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217715542

Taylor, Y (2018) ‘The strange experiences of ‘estranged’ students’ Discover Society (blog) 2018 https://discoversociety.org/2018/11/06/the-strange-experiences-of-estranged-students/

Image: Postcard produced by research participant (see Taylor, 2018).

SRHE member Yvette Taylor is Professor of Education and Deputy Head of School (Research) in the School of Education at Strathclyde University.

Image of Rob Cuthbert


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What’s wrong with the debate about widening participation and fair access?

By Rob Cuthbert

The invaluable Higher Education Policy Institute breakfast seminar series at the House of Commons continued on 27 February 2019 with speakers Chris Millward of the Office for Students, Alan Rusbridger (Oxford) and NUS President Shakira Martin asking the question: ‘Widening participation and fair access: is it time to reset the debate?’. The answer: yes it is, but the seminar didn’t.

This seminar could have happened at any time in the last 20 years, and probably did: obsession with Oxbridge admissions, with a nod to the severe but lesser difficulties of the (rest of the) Russell Group; a lament about social mobility being at a standstill; a deficit model of disadvantaged applicants still being used to excuse lack of progress; and a plea for greater use of contextualised admissions. There was a hint of menace in Millward’s reference to the much greater and more nuanced regulatory powers available to the OfS, reinforced as Rusbridger referred to Oxford’s changes – such as they were – being driven only by greater transparency and the fear of closer regulation. Shakira Martin gave an excellent tub-thumping speech but didn’t go beyond a general exhortation to dismantle the system and build a new one.

There were positive steps. Millward, having noted – with a tinge of regret? – that OfS powers did not extend to admissions, was good on reconstruing ‘merit’ as ability to benefit, rather than level of prior qualifications, citing Princeton’s recent example in tripling its proportion of student intake from disadvantaged backgrounds from 7% to 21%. He also properly emphasised the need for a package of support pre- and post-application: “getting in and getting on”, to which later comments added “getting out” – ie not letting employers escape their share of responsibility. But he pointed out that on present trends fair access would take 50 years to be realised, and Martin asked how many people would suffer in the meantime.

We are doing no more than inching in the right direction. The elephant in the room was the higher education ‘market’, taken for granted so much that it had become invisible as part of the problem. The whole debate was implicitly framed in a market environment. The last Labour government, the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition and now the Conservative government developed a tripartisan agreement that HE should be treated as a market, in the profoundly mistaken belief that marketisation is the best way to ensure accountability and, as HE ministers always say, ‘to drive up standards’. This is a no-win game for universities, because government thinks that having more students getting better degrees is evidence not of rising standards but of grade inflation. And it’s a no-lose game for government: the marketisation policy survives despite the evidence that the HE market allowed in some for-profit operators who induce students with loans to transfer large sums of public money to them, in return for educational programmes of dubious quality.

In present circumstances the widening participation debate starts with the taken-for-granted assumption that universities and colleges are atomistic individual players in competition. However, institutions should not be allowed to do what, perhaps in desperation, they might think best in the competitive market – unconditional offers, closing unpopular science or language courses, or whatever. Government knows better and wants them to do things differently, even as it nods through the collateral damage of a policy-driven catastrophic fall in the numbers of mature and part-time students, and contemplates with equanimity the closure of entire universities – not the ‘top’ universities attended by ministers and civil servants, obviously, just the ones most likely to be serving disadvantaged communities. In addition, government knows better than students what is in students’ best interests, so the policy obsession is with admissions to Oxbridge and the Russell Group, to which of course all students would apply if only they knew what was best for them.

Hence the WP debate continues to be treated as a matter of institution-by-institution target-setting, public embarrassment, regulation, and occasional punishment of the deviants (only the lower-status deviants, obviously), in a way which implicitly and strongly reinforces higher education’s reputational hierarchy. We have travelled a long way from David Watson’s wise celebration of the UK’s ‘controlled reputational range’ and his reminder that ‘a rising tide floats all boats’ in widening participation.

Diagnoses are plentiful, but where might we find a solution? The first step is to remember that there is more to a widening participation philosophy than self-styled ‘top’ universities’ could dream of. Government could and should do much more to celebrate and reward the ‘other’ HE institutions – those which go on providing good or excellent HE for the great majority of students (over 80% of students do not attend Russell Group universities), but which may not appear in the top 20 of any university league table. And if that is too much to ask, then widening participation initiatives, at least, should raise their heads above institutional level. WP practitioners know that collaboration is the key to success.

Aimhigher, a national WP initiative based on collaboration, was killed in 2010 by the then new HE Minister David Willetts, having already been marked for execution by the outgoing Labour government. This was because, as HEPI’s Nick Hillman, Willetts’ special adviser, has said, there was not enough evidence (from the Treasury’s point of view) to save it rather than others from the axe. In subsequent years the collaboration was slowly reconstructed, as far as it could be, by WP stalwarts swimming against the rising tide of market forces in the National Collaborative Outreach Programme. The £50million annual cost of Aimhigher is by now outstripped by a much larger sum being spent much less efficiently on bursaries and predominantly institution-focused outreach activities. Rusbridger reminded us that Oxford’s £14million spend over 2009-2016 had benefited just 126 students, characterised by one seminar participant as spending ‘to keep things exactly as they are’.

How can we reset the debate on widening participation and fair access? We will not do it by encouraging another surge in the market tide. OfS’s widely-admired Chris Millward is doing his best to square the circle, with guidance issued on 28 February 2019 for institutions on their access and participation plans, but the overall programme is inevitably still enslaved by the ambitions and fears of excessively market-conscious institutions. We need to expand ringfenced funding and empower the people who spend it, for fair access initiatives which benefit institutions beyond their own – or, importantly, bring benefits to others but not at all to their own institution. (Yes, Russell Group, that means you.) Initiatives must be rooted in the institutions but promote higher education in general, and should rely for their success on improved participation from truly disadvantaged groups – not those often wrongly flagged as disadvantaged by POLAR data. We need to support more institution-based activity which is not institution-focused. We need to help potential students find courses and institutions which are best for them, not courses in the ‘best’ institutions which their qualifications allow them to consider. Contextualised admissions make good sense in terms of reconstruing merit and ability to succeed, but institutions need to discover that for themselves, and discover how they need to change to accommodate different kinds of merit. Regulation will not change minds in the way that the experience and contribution of a more diverse student body will.

Just as we should be professional, but not mistake academics for a profession, be businesslike, but not mistake the university for a business, we should compete for students, but not mistake higher education for a market. Government and the Office for Students should encourage institutions to collaborate for fair access, and not mistake collaboration for a cabal. The OfS could then focus its attention on any ‘top’ university that is so insecure or selfish about its standing that it fails to collaborate in such collectively-funded fair access initiatives. Most institutions, allowed to be true to the values that motivate most of their staff and students, will do more for fair access than the Office for Students could ever impose.

SRHE Fellow Rob Cuthbert is emeritus Professor of Higher Education Management and a former Deputy VC. He chaired Aimhigher South West, which had an integrated  region-wide programme of WP activity involving all of the South West’s 13 HEIs, 40 FE colleges, state secondary schools, regional agencies and the TUC. He edits SRHE News and the SRHE Blog and is interim chair of the SRHE Publications Committee


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Mind the Gap – Gendered and Caste-based Disparities in Access to Conference Opportunities

In an interview with Conference Inference [1] editor Emily Henderson, Nidhi S. Sabharwal discussed inequalities of access to conference opportunities in India.

Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)Figure 1: Participation in Conferences by Gender (in a high-prestige institution)

EH: Nidhi, can you explain first of all where conferences come into your wider research on inequalities in Indian higher education?

NS: Equitable access to professional development opportunities such as conferences is an indicator of institutional commitment to achieving diversity and inclusion of diverse social groups on campuses. Continue reading


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The deaf delegate – experiences of space and time in the conference (BSL version included)

By Dai O’Brien

In this post, Dai O’Brien discusses spatial and temporal challenges that deaf academics face when attending conferences, and presents some preliminary thoughts from his funded research project on deaf academics. This post is accompanied by a filmed version of this post in British Sign Language.

Access the British Sign Language version of this post here.

Attending conferences is all about sharing information, making those contacts which can help you with research ideas, writing projects and so on. This is the ideal. However, Continue reading


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Please can we actually do something to arrest the decline in the number of disadvantaged adult learners in universities?

By John Butcher

As the UK higher education sector contemplates its New Year resolutions, let me put in an urgent plea for universities to address an unequivocal failure in attempts to widen participation: the potential disappearance of adult learners from English HE. HESA (2017) report a 61% decline in numbers of mature part-time and full-time learners in HE since 2010. Since adult learners are disproportionately likely to be from disadvantaged or under-represented groups, this should be deeply worrying for university leaders committed to widening participation, as well as to a government espousing social mobility. Imagine the furore if female student numbers dropped by 61%, or BME numbers… Continue reading


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Comprehensive universities

By Paul Temple

Tim Blackman, the VC of Middlesex University, will, I guess, have been pleased by the interest created by his polemic, The Comprehensive University: An Alternative to Social Stratification by Academic Selection, (HEPI Occasional Paper 17, July 2017). One response on Wonkhe (20 July) by fellow VC Edward Peck supports Blackman’s wish to see “comprehensive universities” – in the sense of comprehensive schools, where admission is not determined by exam results – but worries that the result would be a government-directed “complicated and centralised” higher education system. This conclusion soon found (I think, unintended) support from Sonia Sodha writing in The Guardian on 18 August, in a piece I first mentally filed with the “Why don’t other people’s children become plumbers?” literature. But Sodha goes further, with proposals that might have caused a Soviet bloc educational apparatchik to hesitate, including standardising degree classifications across the system and “introducing a [minimum] quota for working-class students at each university”. I began to wonder if the piece was actually a wind-up aimed at Daily Mail columnists.  Continue reading


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Exploring a ‘Sense of Belonging’ and Why It Matters in Higher Education

By Gill Mills and Caroline Jones

This was the first time we had attended an SRHE Event: we were optimistic and excited to experience and develop new knowledge aligned to the subject area of, ‘A sense of belonging within Higher Education’ and we were not disappointed. The SRHE venue provided an intimate but not intimidating environment where we were exposed to speakers covering a range of different elements that linked into the common theme. There was initial insight into the issues of admissions; clearing and contextual data from research delivered by Mansor Rezaian, from the Queen Mary University, then a qualitative exploration of non-traditional students’ journey into an elite university from Debbi Stanistreet of the University of Liverpool. Following these opening speakers there were opportunities for participant questions and answers and whilst we did not pose questions we found great value in listening to the elaborate and interesting discussions that took place. This part of the event created an academic community feel with professionals from across institutions, faculties and disciplines debating contextual dilemmas and experiences.

The latter part of the day Continue reading