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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Exploring British Muslim transitions to PGT studies

by Zain Sardar and Amira Samatar

The social mobility charity, the Aziz Foundation, has published a major new report examining the progression challenges encountered by British Muslims aspiring to PGT studies. We consider this a timely intervention, in the context of a rapidly changing student demography, indicated in the popular usage of such terms as ‘hyper-diversification’ (Atherton and Mazhari, 2020) within HE policy discourse, and corroborated in recent projections by the professional membership body, Advance HE. In the wake of these demographic trends, a recent TASO publication (Andrews et al, 2023) reports that the sector is gripped by a high degree of uncertainty over the most expedient institutional approaches to adopt in dealing with disparities in progression and attainment. 

Transitions: British Muslims between UG and PGT studies will be of benefit to HE practitioners, researchers and forward thinking institutions willing to engage in an analysis of the granular experiences of discrete, minoritised communities. That is, decision and policy makers open to targeted interventions, as opposed to the one-size fits all, universal approach that delineates the current comfort zone in HE. We are particularly concerned with the direction in which the widening participation agenda will seek to evolve, encouraging the better incorporation of the access needs of faith communities in any future trajectory.

The progression challenge

The policy exceptionalism that discounts British Muslims from HE regulatory frameworks and formulas helps to sustain the equality gaps that hinder academic progression. To expand on this theme: recently there has been a greater regulatory focus on disparities in relation to ethnicity, which is certainly welcome. For example, there is a consensus that the most pressing sector wide challenges centre on the degree-awarding gap, as mentioned above, and access to doctoral studies for minoritised communities (OfS, 2020). However, a lacuna is still visible: the disadvantages that accrue around faith – as an operative dimension of the British Muslim identity – are still not part of the ‘intersectional mix’ making it onto the regulatory agenda (although we should acknowledge that the new ‘Equalities of Opportunity Risk Register’, established to regulate the student experience, does make mention of Muslim students) (OfS, 2023).

The progression challenge, however, is very evident and borne out in the Office for Students’ (OfS) own data dashboard. It indicates a drop off in British Muslim participation between the undergraduate and postgraduate taught level (from 12% to 8%)(OfS, 2021-22). Furthermore, this is not replicated amongst those from non-faith backgrounds or other control groups, such as Christian students.

We can thus detect in national datasets the contours of an entrenched social mobility fault line. The sector’s response to this is critical, as dealing with these disparities will necessitate enhancing the current access regime. It will need to build in more responsiveness to the forms of disadvantage that holds back intersectional communities – such as British Muslims – from participation at the postgraduate level.

An intersectionality of disadvantage

Transitions centres the testimonies of British Muslims, deploying a Critical Race Theory (CRT) methodology and qualitative analysis to examine the lived experiences of candidates for the Aziz Foundation’s flagship Masters Scholarship programme.

The charity has awarded over 560 scholarships since its inception in 2016, and commenced surveying its candidates in 2019/20, subsequently undertaking this exercise on an annual basis. In having access and utilising the Foundation’s rich seam of data, we would like to position the report as a form of community-based research. From our perspective, participating survey respondents are co-producers of knowledge, supporting an investigation into the factors that inhibit educational progression, as well as shining a light upon the reasons why British Muslims wish to pursue PGT study. 

Moreover, the key concept of ‘intersectionality’ is deployed in order to explore the British Muslim identity through the testimonies (or autoethnographies, in which respondents are invited to reflect on their own condition within HE) of scholarship candidates. As both faith and ethnicity, and the interaction between the two, determines the experiences of, and hardships faced, by British Muslims, this is a crucial focus area. We emphasise this as a ‘hidden’ dynamic, as this type of intersectional disadvantage – in its granularity – is rarely acknowledged in its complexity by HEIs within institutional strategies. 

Pipeline issues and recommendations

Transitions explores why the transition to PGT is of so much significance for British Muslims, as well as the wider sector. It has ramifications beyond the low number of this demographic who progress all the way into academia as researchers and members of the professoriate. For instance, Masters programmes are thought of as a way to redress imbalances in social capital, providing minoritised communities with opportunities to widen networks for professional development. This is important in relation to labour market outcomes, taking into account the underrepresentation of senior leaders across professions and industries of a British Muslim heritage.   

More widely, we would like to ask institutions to reflect on ways in which they can mend the ‘broken bridge’ of PGT – and so fortify the academic and education-to-work pipeline. Some of our report recommendations for institutions and the sector provide a starting point:  

  • Amongst HEIs, there ought to be parity of esteem and financial resources between pre-entry widening participation and postgraduate widening participation
  • HEIs to be proactive in incorporating ‘British Muslim students’ as a disadvantaged group in Access and Participation Plans (APPs), considering institutional context
  • The ‘broken pipeline’ at PGT ought to be bridged with appropriate funding opportunities such as ring fenced scholarships

We urge institutions and practitioners to read our report carefully and consider our full set of recommendations.

Ultimately we believe that the future of the widening participation agenda can be effectively shaped through institutions that take the initiative, developing innovations and extending access to constituencies at the sharp end of the intersectionalities of disadvantage. 

Transitions: British Muslims between undergraduate and PGT studies can be accessed here

Dr Zain Sardar is a joint programme manager at the Aziz Foundation. He leads on the Foundation’s engagement with its university partners and higher education stakeholders. As well as completing his PhD in law at Birkbeck, University of London, he has previously worked in higher education administration and policy. Zain also currently sits on the Yorkshire Consortium for Equity in Doctoral Education external advisory board.

Amira Samatar, MA Ed., AFHEA, is a postgraduate researcher whose academic interests centre around the educational experiences and journeys of racially minoritised students in British universities, with a specific focus on Black British women’s experiences beyond the postgraduate level. Amira is an associate at MA Education Consultancy and is committed to progressing social justice agendas within the higher education sector and to this end, increasing opportunities for Black and Muslim students

References

Andrews, S, Stephenson, J. Adefila, A et al (June 2023) Approaches to addressing the ethnicity degree awarding gap, TASO Atherton, G and Mazhari, T (2020) Preparing for hyper-diversity: London’s student population in 2030 Access HE


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Why do vocational FE students choose to go to HE?

by Neil Raven

Introduction

In a previous blog, I explored the reasons why some students on level 3 (advanced) professional and applied courses decide against higher education. Those whose views were sought came from a further education college (FEC) located in the East Midlands. FECs are significant providers of such (vocational) courses in England (Archer, 2023, UCAS, 2023). Yet, their HE progression rates are typically lower than those reported by schools and sixth form colleges (GOV.UK, 2023). Indeed, the desire to address this differential has been highlighted by the Office for Students (OfS, 2022), including through the work of the Uni Connect programme (Raven, 2023). It also chimes with the government’s levelling up scheme, and the view that FECs are key players in addressing inequalities in regional skills levels (OfS, 2022). However, acknowledging the rationale amongst FE college students for rejecting HE provides only half the picture. Any initiative that seek to widening higher education (HE) participation should also take account of the drivers for progression amongst the same groups of learners, since a good number of FE college students doing vocational programmes go on to some form of higher-level study, although many more have the potential to do so. This was one of the key areas explored in a recent research project and discussed in a book chapter from which the findings in this blog are taken (Raven, 2023).

Method and approach

This research gathered the views of students in the second (and final) year of their level 3 professional and applied courses. The sample comprised 110 students from two FE colleges: one in the Midlands (60 participants), the other in Eastern England (50 participants). In addition to gaining insights into their motivations for pursuing higher-level study, the research looked at the support these students had received. A questionnaire was used for this purpose, with answers captured in a one-to-one meeting between my fellow researcher and each participant. Whilst these meetings required time to organise, this approach to the administration of the questionnaire ensured that all the questions would be understood and considered by those who volunteered to take part in the study (Raven, 2023: p59). To facilitate comparison – and draw out common themes – we chose participants who were pursuing the same three subject areas at each college. These comprised sport, animal management and child care, which were amongst the most popular options offered and where the ambition at both institutions was for more students to take the HE route.

Findings

Three broad sets of motivations for progressing onto higher-level study were voiced by participants across both colleges and amongst the three subject areas. The first set concerned the learning opportunities HE presented. These included gaining more skills, ‘furthering and improving one’s knowledge,’ and acquiring a higher-level qualification (Raven, 2023: p64). The second set of drivers related to ‘the experience’ a university education would offer. Here, participants talked about the social aspects of HE life, including the chance to make friends, gain greater independence, and acquire ‘new life skills.’ The third group of responses focused on the improved ‘employment prospects’ arising from going to university (Raven, 2023: p64). A higher education, it was argued, would open up ‘better job opportunities’, and enhance one’s chances of securing a well-paid job. In addition, it would enable the pursuit of a chosen career and help secure access to sought after professions (Raven, 2023: pp64-65).

Participants also provided insights into the ‘sources of next-step guidance’ that had proved valuable in their decision to pursue a higher education (Raven, 2023: p70). Five sources were discussed, although not every participant alluded to all of these. They comprised the support provided by family members, including ‘parents, sisters and brothers, [along with] extended family members and relatives’, as well as ‘friends.’ (Raven, 2023: p70). Online sources of information were also discussed, including the UCAS website. In addition, a number of participants talked about ‘the insights gained from the work experience’ component of their courses. The guidance and encouragement provided by college staff was also highlighted, in particular that offered by tutors and careers teachers (Raven, 2023: p70). However, surprisingly few made reference to outreach activities, including campus visits and university open days.

Implications

Whilst these findings are from a small study, the consistency in responses amongst participants who came from three different subject areas and were studying at two separate colleges suggests that they are of significance. Moreover, the motivations identified are consistent with those that have been discussed in other studies (Wiseman et al, 2017). The Uni Connect programme is seeking to raise progression rates from FE colleges (OfS, 2022). These findings suggest the value of ensuring any support offered considers and engages with the drivers likely to facilitate participation. They also draw attention to a gap that could be filled through the provision of outreach interventions (Raven, 2023).

That said, more research is needed. The questionnaire used in this study proved an efficient way of gathering the views of the majority of students on the designated courses. However, the deployment of focus groups, or semi-structured interviews, with a sample of the same students would enable a more detailed exploration of HE drivers, and a closer consideration of the nature and effectiveness of the support they received, and the types of outreach that would be of greatest benefit to them and their peers.

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

Acknowledgements

Thank you to the students at both colleges who participated in this study. Thank you also to Dr John Baldwin for overseeing the questionnaire survey.


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Responsibilities and gatekeeping in using language certificates for HE admission

by Jana Berg, Michael Grüttner, Stefanie Schröder

With the exception of a few master’s degree programs, the German higher education system is dominated by monolingual organizations. Therefore, language certificates are a key element of access to German higher education for international students. Trust in language certificates is critical, both for international student applicants and for university staff as well. However, in admission practice, there might be a tension between professional responsibilities and a lack of trust in the validity of standardised language certificates.

From 2017 to 2021, we conducted the study “Refugees’ pathways to German higher education institutions (WeGe)” on study preparations for refugee students in German higher education at the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), which was funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research under grant number 16PX16015. Our interview partners included staff of HE institutions as well as preparatory colleges that have to decide about admission to study preparation courses for international students. Those courses often include language instruction, but an at least intermediate level of German proficiency is usually mandatory for enrolment.

Our interview partners demonstrated a strong sense of responsibility. On the one hand, to fulfil their perceived role in the context of quality assurance by selecting capable and motivated students. And on the other hand, to prevent students from wasting their time with futile endeavours. This responsibility was embedded in their role, but also reflected in their perception of tasks and priorities. At the same time, we found notable insecurities regarding the quantitative evaluation of language skills. Standardised language certificates, even though formally recognized on an institutional level, were commonly perceived as no representation of actual language proficiency. Interview partners referred to their practical experience that language skills of applicants with the same language certification varied widely.

This insecurity between institutional quality conventions and formal access criteria raises problems for the perceived responsibility to ensure a maximum chance of success for students. We illustrate this with qualitative interview material from one case that emphasised the perceived lack of reliable documentation of skills by standardised language certificates. The interviewee strongly identified with the role of keeping up quality conventions. However, he perceived a strict formal protocol based on paperwork as insufficient, as his professional experience had shown that language certificates do not always match his expectations in an applicant’s language proficiency. He emphasised: “I don’t really care about documents, the skills have to back them up”. His strategy to deal with this lack of trust was his personal, informal language test: “Whenever it is possible, if the people are present, I do an assessment test. It is 100 tasks with 40 minutes, like a snapshot. It is supposed to show what people can access spontaneously”. Theoretically speaking, a tension arises between two quality conventions, a first concerned with an evaluation that takes into account the local circumstances and personal responsibility for the individual purpose of the international student applicants, and a second concerned with an evaluation that treats every international student applicant as equal and self-reliant (Imdorf & Leemann, 2023). As a compromise between these two quality conventions, university staff invent localised, self-designed short language tests to address this tension.

After high dropout numbers and bad experiences with a lack of language proficiency in the past, our case study participant reported that his now more selective and rigorous procedure had improved the course results of participants. However, it was still very much based on his individual perception of potential participants, as one exception he had made emphasises: “A prime example is a woman from Sudan, South Sudan, with two small children. […] she got up at four in the morning to study before the children were awake. […] And I don’t know why, I looked her in the eye, and she wanted to. And went through with it, mercilessly. So really, as a prime example. And is now studying electrical engineering.”

This case emphasises how professional insecurities can cause the development of professional strategies that devalue institutionalised procedures and increase the relevance of subjective impressions. However, it is not an issue only related to this case, even though this interviewee was especially explicit in addressing his insecurities and his coping strategies. Our findings imply that this divergence between perceived professional responsibilities and institutional conventions on the one side, and the quality and reliability of even internationally recognized certificates on the other side, is causing a lack of direction. This void is met with strategies of additional support, individual assessment criteria, and sometimes a stronger emphasis on personal perceptions of applicants. This has implications not only for HE professionals, but also for accessibility and equity in higher education. When practitioners perceive documents as unreliable and adapt their selection measures accordingly, application procedures become unreliable and less than transparent to applicants. However, all HE application procedures should transparently respond to one question: what counts?

On a practical level, we recommend addressing such insecurities with HE practitioners, by offering practical training and creating opportunities for exchange and supervisions. Additionally, a closer look at the perceived insufficiencies of language certificates could and should also be used to further develop standardised language tests, best in a dialogue between test providers, teaching professionals and course participants. Further research in the area of study preparation on conditions conducive to the acquisition of German language skills at the university level could also usefully contribute to improvement.

Dr Jana Berg is a postdoctoral researcher at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW). She holds a Dr. in Sociology from the Leibniz University of Hanover. Her main research is on widening participation, the governance of HE internationalization, and climate science communication.

Dr Michael Grüttner received his Dr in sociology from Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany. He conducts research at the DZHW with a focus on social inclusion, migration, lifelong learning, and higher education.

Stefanie Schröder, MA, is the coordinator for continuing higher education at the Hochschulallianz Ruhr at Bochum University of Applied Sciences. Previously, she worked as a researcher at the DZHW. Her research focuses on educational inequalities, alternative access to higher education, and anti-discrimination data.


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Make the tacit explicit: how to improve information on university webpages for potential doctoral applicants

by Dangeni, James Burford and Sophia Kier-Byfield

Working out how to apply for a doctoral programme can be a challenging process for many potential applicants. As countless Youtube videos, blogposts and twitter threads attest, there is much confusion and plenty of (sometimes contrasting) advice on the internet about what to do, whom to contact, and how to contact them. Some applicants find this process so challenging that they turn to a range of paid services that help them to learn how to contact a potential doctoral supervisor or develop a research proposal. There is clearly much demand for guidance on how to make a successful application to doctoral study, but for many academics and professional services staff doctoral admissions is a familiar and routine process where quick assessments can be made about the enquiries of a given applicant.

We began our recent exploratory research project, ‘Opening up the Black Box of Pre-application Doctoral Communications’, with an interest in the somewhat opaque processes that occur prior to formal doctoral admissions, but which often form a crucial part of the pathway to applying. We were concerned that the mysteries of the pre-application stage may have Equity Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) implications, making it easier for some to navigate toward doctoral study than others. We conducted a study to examine the pre-application stage of doctoral admissions in a single university context, the University of Warwick.

At the start of our study, we conducted a search for public-facing, institutional webpages relevant to doctoral admissions. Webpages are one of the key spaces where potential doctoral applicants can gather information about the application process, including institutional pages (eg produced by a Doctoral College) and departmental pages (eg departmental guidance or a potential supervisor’s webpage).

We aimed to identify and characterise information aimed at doctoral applicants prior to their making formal applications to study. Our primary goal in conducting this review was to understand: (a) the nature of pre-admissions information on university webpages; (b) whether this pre-admissions information was consistent across the institution; and, (c) whether the detail was a sufficient and adequate explanation of key pre-application steps to potential applicants.

This blog post gives our top six tips for stakeholders involved in doctoral admissions to consider for potential applicants, so that they have all the information they need from public-facing web pages.  

  1. Avoid complicated web designs, texts and duplicated material

All the webpages we reviewed provided ‘opening pages’ which covered the basic details and specifications of programme, but there was a wide variety of detail in terms of the introductions to departments. Some departments included short paragraphs, others offered more elaborate introductions which included orienting students to the research areas of the department, the ranking of the department in UK league tables, and student testimonials with multiple tabs and long paragraphs, sometimes with invalid links. These layouts can be confusing on a computer screen, but institutions and departments could also consider that potential applicants may use phones or tablets to access the information, and thus the webpage design should be tablet/phone friendly. It is also necessary to check whether the page is accessible, eg for visually impaired visitors or those with learning difficulties.

  • Display a checklist and flowchart for the pre-admissions process

We found two categories of admission information across department webpages. The first category was a link to signpost applicants to the central university portal for application advice and guidance, which provides an overview of the pre-application procedure for potential applicants to follow. The second category of admission information is commonly more tailored to a department’s specific procedures and is often accessed via a ‘how to apply’ section. However we noted that several departments did not undertake much departmental level ‘translation’ of general admissions information, perhaps simply linking applicants to the central university portal. We do not believe this would give potential applicants sufficient information to know how to get started and what to do in local contexts. In particular, decision-making related information and explanations were rare: very few departments explained details such as evaluation criteria, who is involved, the maximum cohort size each year, and the timeframe for decision-making. Therefore, we suggest that departmental webpages should consider displaying a checklist of key steps and a flowchart explaining the timeframe, decision-making process and who is involved.

  • Outline what is expected from applicants in terms of locating a supervisor before applying

Most departmental webpages advise applicants to contact prospective supervisors in advance of the application to discuss research interests and compatibility, although some do not require a nominated supervisor for application. Our web review identified that most departments do consider this process to be a key pre-application step, and some provide relevant information and guidance regarding how to identify a supervisor. Therefore, a clear indication of what is expected from applicants to contact prospective supervisors is needed on departmental webpages. Additionally, institutions/departments should encourage academic staff to update their staff profile web pages with consistent information eg current projects supervised, information on interests (topic, methodology/approach, country contexts, and capacity to take on new students) would be helpful for applicants in the preparation and communications stages.

  • Explain what counts as a ‘good’ research proposal

Another key category of pre-application information concerns how to draft a research proposal. Most departments require a research proposal for an application to be considered; research proposal-related guidance can be found in two categories. Most departments link to the central university portal for application advice and guidance, which contains the general structure of a research proposal (eg an overview of research question(s), main objective of research, potential contribution to existing research field/literature, research techniques, suggested data collection procedures and an outline timeline) and a list of department requirements. In contrast, in several departments, a webpage or a link to department-specific guidance can be found, providing an outline/structure with word count and what to include in detail. It is suggested that clear guidance on a ‘good’ research proposal (disciplinary equivalent) is necessary for applicants, including information on expected sections and length, as well as the evaluation criteria for the proposal.

  • Include clear contact information for the department for potential applicants

As emphasised on the central university portal for application advice and guidance, one of the most important points to consider is whether the academic department shares the academic interests of the applicant. While all departments suggest applicants make contact before proceeding with their application any further, different formats and categories of making the initial contact and sending inquiries can be found across departments. Though all departments provide email addresses for applicants to make general inquiries, some provide the Academic Director of PGR (who manages the department’s PGR programme) and relevant professional staff contact details. It is suggested that institutions/departments should include clear contact information for potential applicants, including which queries should be directed at which named members of staff and how long the wait time may be for responses.

  • Welcome applicants from underrepresented groups implicitly and explicitly

Only two departments across all faculties featured EDI-related information in their pre-admission information webpages. The first was in the form of a statement explaining why plenty of information was provided (‘in order to demystify the admissions process, as part of our commitment to enhancing inclusivity in doctoral education’). The second featured a video clip which sought to detail principles of an inclusive working and learning environment and welcome applications from individuals who identify with any of the protected characteristics defined by the Equality Act 2010. Websites which clearly communicate all required information to applicants serve an EDI function in that they do not require applicants to draw upon tacit information to make sense of pre-application steps that have not been carefully explained. In addition to clear and accessible information, welcome statements that determine a departmental position on inclusion can be helpful in that they directly acknowledge those under-represented in higher education. This could be written in collaboration with existing minoritised students.

Our aim is to share the findings from our institutional case study, but also to encourage reflection, review and conversation amongst colleagues about pre-application practices. We highly recommend involving staff and students in review processes as much as possible to ensure that webpages are readable, relevant and useful.

Further information

Two linked Pre-Application Doctoral Communications Research Projects have been carried by a research team based at the University of Warwick including Dr James Burford (PI), Dr Emily Henderson (Co-I), Dr Sophia Kier-Byfield, Dr Dangeni and Ahmad Akkad. The projects were funded by Warwick’s Enhancing Research Culture Fund. The team have produced a suite of open access resources including project briefings. For more information on the project see the website (www.warwick.ac.uk/padc) or #PADC_project on Twitter.

Dr Dangeni is a Professional Development Advisor at Newcastle University, where her teaching and research focus broadly on teaching and learning provision in the wider context of the internationalisation of higher education. She is particularly interested in research and practices around international students’ access, engagement and success in postgraduate taught (PGT) and postgraduate research (PGR) settings.

Dr James Burford is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick. James’ research interests include doctoral education and the academic profession, higher education internationalisation and academic mobilities. Dr Sophia Kier-Byfield is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Warwick, where she works on the ‘Opening Up the Black Box of Pre-Application Doctoral Communications’ projects. Her research interests broadly concern equity in higher education, feminisms in academia and inclusive pedagogies.


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The value and values of third sector collaboration for equality of opportunity

by Ruth Squire

In October 2022, as part of a foreword to the Office for Student’s consultation on ‘regulating equality of opportunity in English higher education’, the Director for Fair Access and Participation set out that he expects ‘more, and more impactful, strategic, enduring, mutually-beneficial partnerships with schools and with the third sector’ (OfS, November 2022).

The expectation has carried through into more recent guidance issued by the OfS (OfS, March 2023a), which names the third sector as potential collaborators in supporting school attainment and student outcomes. This is not a new expectation – the OfS, its predecessor organisations, and the DfE have repeatedly stressed the value of collaboration and HE providers (HEPs) collaborating with the ’third sector’ for access and participation – but it does warrant some scrutiny, as it can carry several implicit assumptions about the value and values that the ‘third sector’ can bring to access and participation. In its summary of consultation responses, the OfS notes that some respondents were ‘unsure’ whether third sector collaboration was appropriate (OfS, March 2023b), suggesting that not everyone has the same understanding or enthusiasm around these potential relationships as the OfS.

Questioning the third sector imaginary

The term ‘third sector’ (as opposed to a voluntary, community or charity sector) carries with it a lot of political history and assumptions. Organisations considered ‘third sector’ have been generally assumed to be, in some ways ‘better’ than alternatives in the public or private sectors, whether ethically or in terms of structures that make them more effective at tackling social issues (Macmillan, 2015). These organisations have been assumed to have innovation, effectiveness and (the right) values ‘baked in’ to their organisational structure. These assumptions can become particularly problematic when they are framed in opposition to the work of HEPs, whose widening access work has sometimes been criticised for making slow progress and being informed by institutions’ market interests. Rather than considering these qualities as attributes of ‘types’ of organisations or sectors, it might be better to ask what qualities we need and value in widening access and participation, and how these can be supported in all contexts. Simply ascribing qualities or values, even implicitly, to third sector organisations can frame them either as an ‘add on’ or even antidote to access and participation within HEPs – not particularly collaborative.

The examples of third sector collaboration offered by the OfS and its predecessors have tended to focus on particular ‘types’ even within the third sector – mostly social enterprises and philanthropic organisations. These are often ‘hybrid’ organisations that explicitly combine social and economic value and/or blend public and private sector practices. Among these, the Sutton Trust, with its blended focus on research, lobbying and activity delivery, and a message focused on access to the most elite professions and universities, has become the most prominent. However, the majority of non-HEP access and participation organisations do not have the resources of the Trust, nor is it appropriate for all organisations to follow this blended model of delivery. The presence of such a dominant model of ‘third sector’, which is particularly attractive and well-known among political figures, can create both opportunities and challenges for other third sector organisations, particularly in terms of advancing alternative visions of widening access and collaboration.

If we look wider than this narrow understanding of the ‘third sector’ and how it should operate, then there are a whole range of different organisations that could be and have been collaborators in access and participation. These include campaigning organisations, grassroots community organisations, parent-teacher associations or students’ unions. Collaboration with charitable and/or community organisations around widening access is not new for HEPs. Nor is it a new way of delivering on widening participation aims. However, with a dominant view of what qualifies as ‘third sector’ it is unclear whether these organisations offer the value or values expected by the OfS.

Looking more closely at the capacities and qualities of third sector collaborators can also reveal some assumptions we make about the shape of collaboration and the role of HEPs. Many third sector organisations, even those referenced as exemplars by the OfS, need to collaborate with universities to deliver their missions and to survive. However, they rarely have the security of long-term relationships that can support the effectiveness and innovation that are supposedly their essential characteristics. Examples of existing partnerships have tended to frame third sector organisations as deliverers of activity or consultants, with the HEP in control. What ‘impactful, strategic, enduring and mutually-beneficial’ looks like may require a change from current practice, questioning that power dynamic.

Values-driven organisations

The supposed neutrality and (non-partisan) values of third sector organisations working in widening participation have sometimes made them particularly attractive to political figures and to policy makers, singling these out as examples of good work. Despite values being seen as a positive quality in the work of the third sector, relatively little scrutiny has been placed on values in access and participation practice and policy more broadly. The quality of ‘good people doing good things’ is certainly not unique to the third sector, especially given that they are often the same people and same values as those working in HEPs or even the OfS.

Personal and institutional values have a core role in the enactment of widening participation in all settings. In a survey conducted with widening access professionals in 2021, personal experiences and values were a motivating factor in their roles for all respondents, regardless of the type of organisation they worked for (McCaig, Rainford & Squire, 2022). However, this is not to say that context is not important. Third sector organisations are often materially different to HEPs, not least in their relationship to widening participation policies. In that same survey, there were notable differences in how respondents described their organisations’ motivations, both within and between third sector organisations and HEPs.

There is a growing argument that we need to look more closely at the enactment of widening policy and how it is translated into practice within organisational and national contexts (Rainford, 2020; Benson-Egglenton, 2022). This is as true of third sector organisations working in this space as it is of HEPs (and of the FE colleges, employers and virtual spaces which are also often not included in policy and research). Understanding more about the different contexts in which widening participation is enacted and about those who enact it is an important component in understanding how some of the broader goals of widening participation can be achieved. We also need to pay critical attention to the different roles and capacities of organisations in the widening participation policy space, and their interests. Third sector organisations, just like HEPs, are not neutral by virtue of being charities. Values matter and they offer the potential for meaningful and enduring connections that are not based on organisation ‘type’. If we are to build the type of partnerships the OfS is calling for it will be crucial to move beyond assumptions and develop greater understanding of our similarities and differences .

Dr Ruth Squire is Evaluation and Impact Manager at Leeds Trinity University. Her PhD thesis explored the role of third sector organisations in widening participation policy and practice and she continues to research the enactment of policy, evaluation practice and widening access and participation work.


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Working-Class and working in higher education: possibilities and pedagogies

by Carli Rowell

This blog reports on presentations and discussion at an SRHE event on 1 February 2023.

Doctoral study, despite its expansion, continues to operate as a classed pathway, a problem exacerbated by the surplus of doctoral graduates and an increasingly congested precarious global academic labour market. Although a prerequisite for academic careers, the doctorate no longer operates as a passport into the ivory tower. It is now accepted that the ‘leaky pipeline’ of academia, whereby ‘non-traditional’ (eg working-class, BAME) participants remain absent from professorial and higher managerial positions within UKHE is adversely affecting the diversity of scholarship and leadership.

SRHE brought together those who identify as coming from a working-class background and who are currently working in higher-education or aspiring to do so, as well as those with an interest in supporting working-class persons through the pipeline to and through academia. The event served as supportive space where delegates discussed the lived experience of being a working-class academic (aspiring to otherwise), the implications of a working-class background on pedagogy alongside contemporary barriers to transitions to and through academia and so called ‘strategies for successes’.

In the opening session I shared some findings from my earlier SRHE Newer Researcher Award project “No words, just two letters ‘Dr’”: Working-class early career researcher’s reflections on the transition to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia”. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The talk addressed some key emerging findings shaping working-class doctoral researcher experiences of getting in and getting on in UK academia. The important of working-class ‘others’ in navigating academics funding and the PhD application process and the implications for this upon the diversity of scholarship was a key theme, as were the geographical demands of the labour market which stood in conflict with the desires of many of the working-class participants who wished to remain living close to family and friends. This opened up discussion about the demands of academia for would be working-class academics.

Dr Iona Burnell Reilly (East London), following the publication of her edited book: The Lives of Working Class Academics: Getting Ideas Above your Station, reflected on the often uncomfortable experience of positioning oneself as being working-class in academia and pointed to the need to reflect on the working-class experience of higher education intersectionally, in conversation with other aspects of identity. Dr Burnell Reilly asked “Why do we feel the need to talk about working-class academic experiences?”, arguing that the legacy of elitism persists in relation to higher education. Class is not a protected characteristic and the history of the working class in HE suggests that classism has been the hardest bias to reverse (Crew, 2020). Then: “How have they [the w/c] become who they are in an industry steeped in elitism?” and “Do they [the w/c] continue to identify as working class or has their social positioning and/or identities shifted?”. Dr Burnell Reilly pulled out key themes central to the narratives included in her book, those of dual identities, imposters, the transformative power of education and the enduring stigma associated with certain classed accents. For her it was and is important that she continues to be herself in academia despite the pressure to assimilate, arguing this has brought her closer to her ‘working-classness’. Nevertheless, the questioning of one’s place (am I right to be here?); feelings of imposterism and the splitting of identities, (being one person at work and a different person at home) shape Dr Burnell Reilly’s experience of being a working-class academic.

In operationalising ‘working-class’ and how she came to choose authors to contribute, she felt it was important to allow authors to self-identify as being working class – things she would not say: “I’m not the class police”; “prove that you are working-class before you write a chapter”. Social class is something that is often difficult to identify with, a slippery concept that is difficult to define. For Dr Burnell it was not for her to define since, for her, social class comes from a person’s lived reality. Defining working-class “is not a problem to be fixed” – there are many different ways to be working-class.

Dr Burnell’s presentation was followed by lightning talks by Dr Teresa Crew (Bangor), Dr Steve Wong (East London) and Khalil Akbar (East London) (all contributors to The Lives of Working Class Academics: Getting Ideas Above your Station). Dr Crew said how in preparing for the talk, and when writing her chapter, she constantly reflected on the question of sharing, and how much she wanted to reveal about herself in her writing, noting that as academics we rarely write about ourselves. There were challenges and complexity in writing about being a working-class academic: “How do you write about the experience without coming across as being full of yourself?”, an interesting point given that not feeling full of oneself is a deeply classed feeling. Her experience of academia was littered with microaggressions; for Crew, “The social sciences are a wonderful discipline, but not always as welcoming as one might think”. Reflecting on her initial motivations to pursue higher education Crew spoke of wanting to be able to read the “posh newspapers”.  She finished with the observation that working-class aspiring academics often “only get one shot to get into academia and we need to make the most of that shot”.

Dr Steve Wong talked about his lived experiences of social class classifications across time and space, considering how working-class can mean different things in different contexts. Drawing on his background of being born and growing up in Malaysia, he reflected on how his own classed self-identity shifted as he moved to the USA for his university education. Considering the intersections of race, ethnicity, and class, the importance of accent as a class/ethnic/nationality marker once again came to the forefront of discussions. There are problems in identifying classes and the role of class affiliations. For Dr Wong, the problem of class is also the problem of belonging and the problem of being accepted or othered by other members of academic institutions.

Continuing the considerations on the importance of considering the working-class experience of academia intersectionally, Khalil Akbar discussed his sometimes uncomfortable experience of academia, especially when considering issues of Islamophobia, race, and the power of language. In writing his chapter Akbar said that, at first, such reflections did not feature as part of his chapter, but he felt that the omission was concealing important aspects of his lived experience. Akbar noted the sacrifices that his family had made in order for him to attend university. He had been motivated to attend university at first by his desire for escapism, prompting the difficult experience of feeling as if he was betraying aspects of his religious and cultural identity. For Akbar, working-class academics have the potential to foster a sense of belonging for non-traditional students. Reflecting on the whiteness of the establishment, Akbar shared his experience of wanting to leave university: having no one like him to talk to made for an isolating experience. With no one to turn to for guidance Akbar subsequently withdrew from university, returning to HE later in life. He emphasised the importance, to use his words, of reflecting upon “the academic I am becoming, not the academic I am” noting that becoming academic and feeling academic was an ongoing process.

Talks were followed by a safe, supportive and collegial discussion space whereby key themes were discussed and where delegates shared reflections on the themes of the day. The event provided space for delegates to feel empowered to think about how their working-class background had influenced and continues to influence their experiences of studying and working in HE. The importance of ensuring a clear pipeline to and through academia for working-class persons (and other non-traditional participants) was discussed, with calls for the role of the PhD funding application process to undergo greater scrutiny and more inclusivity.

It is hoped that this event will serve as one of many more SRHE events that seek to bring together academics from working-class backgrounds.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.  Email c.r.rowell@sussex.ac.uk or Twitter @Carli Rowell.


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Moving with the times: The growing need for better graduate mobility data

by Tej Nathwani

Introduction

As SRHE noted in their summary of the theme of the 2022 conference, one of the current areas of discussion is the relationship between student mobility and outcomes. For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) have used the Longitudinal Education Outcomes dataset to explore trends in graduate mobility and earnings in England. While mobility is correlated with individual destinations, there are also wider macroeconomic consequences resulting from the extent to which graduates move around the country.

In a separate paper by the Resolution Foundation and the Centre for Economic Performance, researchers at the two organisations highlighted how one of the key factors that explains variations in productivity across areas are human capital levels – measured by the share of graduates in the locality. Hence, while providers can help with widening participation and upskilling the labour force in our most deprived regions, the full benefits of this for the vicinity may only be realised if those individuals who study in higher education choose not to move out of the area or region. One of the consequences of this is that providers are increasingly working with employers to try and ensure graduates can utilise their skills in the local economy (for example at Sheffield Hallam).

Given the state of the UK economy and the role mobility may have on individuals and growth, this is a topic that will remain salient in forthcoming years. However, even before we think about the association between mobility and outcomes, the first question to consider is how data might help us to better understand the extent to which graduates move for study and/or work. Historically, exploration of graduate movements has been at a regional level, which has become less relevant and valuable at a time when interest also lies in inequalities within regions, as well as between them. This blog will thus focus on a new marker HESA has generated to help our users gain more detailed insights into mobility.

The current problem

Patterns of regional migration and the categorisation of graduates into different groups based on this was first explored by Prospects back in the mid-2000s. One of the limitations of using such an aggregated level of geography, however, is that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are all classified as individual regions. This means we are unable to examine what mobility is like within these nations. To see the drawbacks for investigating mobility in England using region, consider the neighbouring areas of Bradford and Leeds – both of which are within Yorkshire and The Humber. As the ONS regional economic activity data illustrates, there has been a divergence in the economic performance of these two places over the last twenty years. Hence, a graduate originally from Bradford who studies at the local university, but then moves for work to Leeds would be allocated to the same group in a regional analysis as one who initially lives, studies and is then employed in Bradford. With the graduate share being a key factor in understanding the differences in economic performance between areas, the possibility of distinguishing between graduates who remain in areas of low economic activity and those who move out of such localities for work is growing in importance.

A potential solution

HESA collect the postcode at which the individual resides prior to starting higher education and also request similar data from the graduate in the Graduate Outcomes survey regarding their location of employment (if they don’t know the postcode for their employment location, we ask the graduate to provide the town/city/area in which they work). There is therefore the potential to map these postcodes to local authority data (and their equivalents in Scotland and Northern Ireland). Using local authority of residence/work and region of study, we have created a mobility marker consisting of the following seven categories:

  1. Stays in same region for study and finds work in the same local authority as original location of residence
  2. Returns to the same local authority for work as original location of residence, having left region/country for study
  3. Stays in same region for study, but finds work in different local authority (in the same region) to original location of residence
  4. Returns to a different local authority (of the same region) for work when compared with original location of residence, having moved region/country for study
  5. Moved region/country for work, but did not move region for study
  6. Moved region/country for study, but did not then move region/country again for work
  7. Moved region/country for study and then moved region/country again for work (with the region/country being different to their original region/country of residence)

Going back to our original example of the two graduates from Bradford (one who moves for work and one who doesn’t), this new classification ensures they are no longer placed in the same group. Rather, one is allocated to category A, while the other is assigned to C. Such distinctions will help improve our awareness of overall patterns of mobility across time.

Concluding thoughts

Our initial exploration into mobility and job quality suggests that migrating for employment is correlated with graduates finding a role that fits better with their career plans. With similar findings on the benefits of moving for work from a salary perspective also being reported by the IFS, this could potentially leave those aiming to reduce disparities in economic performance between areas with a conundrum. Policies aiming to upskill the labour force in more deprived areas and help reduce spatial inequalities require these individuals to remain in such neighbourhoods. Yet current evidence suggests that moving for work is associated with more positive outcomes for these people. Given the relevance to policy aims, as we continue to collect increasing amount of data on graduates through our annual Graduate Outcomes survey, we shall be exploring the potential to map how mobility differs by area (eg by investigating whether we have adequate sample size at more granular levels of geography). If this does prove feasible, this will help end users with ascertaining the extent to which localities with lower output are gaining/losing graduates.

High levels of inequality and poor growth are two key concerns for the UK economy. We hope that the development of new measures on deprivation and graduate mobility can help the higher education sector with tackling these issues and assist providers in capturing the wider impact they are making in society.

Feedback on our mobility marker is most welcome. Please send these to pressoffice@hesa.ac.uk.

To learn more about Graduate Outcomes, visit www.graduateoutcomes.ac.uk or view the latest national level official statistics.

To be kept updated on our publication plans and latest research releases, please join our mailing list.

Tej Nathwani is a Principal Researcher (Economist) at HESA, which is now part of Jisc.


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Deprivation data: Introducing a new UK-wide area-based measure

by Tej Nathwani

Introduction

The 2020s will be a pivotal period in determining the UK’s economic future. That’s the primary message of a recent report published by the Resolution Foundation and Centre for Economic Performance at LSE. While major events such as the pandemic and Brexit have undoubtedly played a part in this, there are also longer-term factors that have contributed to the country reaching this position. Examples noted by the researchers include stagnant productivity levels, large disparities in economic performance between areas and inequalities in our education system.

Naturally, one of the questions being increasingly asked of the UK higher education sector is how it is helping to resolve some of the latter issues. Yet being able to tackle these matters successfully, as well as understand the outcomes from various interventions, requires the provision of suitable data. As the body responsible for the collection and dissemination of information about UK higher education, HESA has a role to play in supplying appropriate variables and statistics to our users that support them in their decision-making. Hence, the past few years have seen us develop new fields designed to be relevant and valuable in meeting the current needs of our customers. Across two separate blogs we will be outlining what these are and the potential value they can deliver. In this first piece we begin with a focus on our work relating to socioeconomic disadvantage.

The uses of data on deprivation in higher education

One of the ways in which providers seek to improve equality of opportunity in education is through outreach activity. These are initiatives that aim to raise aspiration and attainment among those from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as helping to inform them of the potential benefits that studying for a degree can offer. Area-based data on deprivation will typically be used in two ways. Firstly, as part of the eligibility criteria that an individual must meet to participate (for example, at Surrey). Secondly, it can help providers determine the areas of the country which they believe would be most useful to target given their strategic ambitions (for example, at King’s College London).

The current problem

The most commonly used area-based measure of disadvantage across the sector in each of the four nations is the index formed from the Indices of Deprivation. However, while this is especially effective in capturing deprivation in major urban areas, it is known to be less useful in identifying this in rural locations. For example, Na h-Eileanan Siar in Scotland has no localities that emerge in the bottom quintile of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD), despite income levels being below the national average. (Indeed, local government looking at poverty in the area highlight that ‘There are difficulties in using the SIMD in rural areas. Areas such as the Outer Hebrides are sparsely populated, socially heterogeneous and less sensitive to area-based measures such as SIMD. This can lead to a situation where households in rural areas are omitted from policy and targeting by national interventions designed to address poverty and inequalities’.) Furthermore, the size of the areas used to derive the index can also make it difficult to fully understand the levels of deprivation within localities. For example, there may be pockets within a zone that are experiencing higher levels of disadvantage compared with other vicinities, but the use of a more aggregated geographic domain can lead to this being masked. The consequence of this for the higher education sector is that there may be some prospective students who live in deprived neighbourhoods, but due to the limitations of existing data, find themselves unable to participate in outreach activity (eg as a result of not meeting the eligibility criteria or providers not targeting their place of residence).

Comparability is also an important aspect of high-quality statistics. Each nation of the UK, however, adopts a different approach in generating its index from the Indices of Deprivation. This means it is not a UK-wide variable and does not enable statistics to be evaluated across nations. Both the Office for Statistics Regulation and the latest State of the Nation report by the Social Mobility Commission (see p20) have highlighted this as an existing data gap that inhibits our understanding of wider societal trends in social mobility.

A potential solution

The question we therefore asked ourselves was ‘Can we create a UK-wide area-based measure of deprivation that can also address some of the drawbacks of existing indicators?’. To do so, we relied upon the 2011 Census, given the questions asked across the nations are harmonised as far as possible, meaning a UK-wide metric can be created. Data are also released at ‘output area’ level (output areas are often referred to as ‘small areas’ in Northern Ireland), which is a smaller level of geography than is used for the Indices of Deprivation. Output areas will typically contain less than 500 individuals.

With earnings data not available in the Census, our measure of deprivation was derived using the qualifications and occupations of residents in output areas, given these two factors are key determinants of low income. Having generated this, and to understand the potential value it could bring, we compared the bottom quintile of our measure to the equivalent group in the index produced from the Indices of Deprivation (ie the most deprived neighbourhoods). In each of the four nations, we found that our measure picked up a greater proportion of rural areas, albeit to varying degrees. Furthermore, when looking at those output areas that emerged in the lowest fifth of our measure, but a higher quintile of the index developed using the Indices of Deprivation, we observe that the most prevalent localities are based in local authorities/council areas/local government districts where there appear to be lower levels of economic activity (eg County Durham in England, North Lanarkshire in Scotland, Rhondda in Wales, as well as Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon in Northern Ireland).

Concluding thoughts

In summary, our measure does seem to overcome some of the existing shortcomings of area-based indicators of deprivation. Over the next few years, we shall therefore be looking to supply the measure to users in an accessible format, alongside updating it using information from the most recent Census. As well as supporting equality of opportunity, if the measure can help to raise participation and skill levels in some of our most deprived neighbourhoods, there is also the possibility that this will assist with reducing spatial disparities in output. For example, the study by the Resolution Foundation and the Centre for Economic Performance notes that the ability of the Shared Prosperity Fund to successfully increase growth may well depend on the levels of human capital in the area. Through upskilling local residents living in disadvantaged localities, providers may therefore be able to facilitate the creation of the conditions needed for growth-enhancing initiatives to succeed. Of course, this rests on the assumption that these areas do not subsequently see residents move to other parts of the country. Understanding the geographical mobility of graduates will thus be the topic of our next blog.

Read more about our measure, its correlation with income and how it compares to the Indices of Deprivation https://www.hesa.ac.uk/insight/08-11-2022/new-area-based-measure-deprivation-summary.

Feedback on our measure of deprivation is most welcome. Please send this to pressoffice@hesa.ac.uk.

To be kept updated on our publication plans and latest research releases, please join our mailing list.

Tej Nathwani is a Principal Researcher (Economist) at HESA, which is now part of Jisc.


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Why not HE? The reasons those from under-represented backgrounds decide against university

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 neil.d.raven@gmail.com.

References

Anon (2022) ‘Research Guidance Note 9. Research versus evaluation activities.’ Code of Practice on Research Integrity, Edinburgh Napier University, https://staff.napier.ac.uk/services/research-innovation-office/policies/Documents/Research%20Guidance%20Note%209%20Research%20Verus%20Evaluation%20Activities.pdf.

Baldwin, J, Raven, N and Weber-Jones, R (2020) ‘Access ‘Cinderellas’: further education colleges as engines of transformational change’, in Broadhead, S, Butcher, J, Davison, E,, Fowle, W, Hill, M, Martin, L, Mckendry, S, Norton, F, Raven, N, Sanderson, B, and Wynn Williams, S (eds) Delivering the Public Good of Higher Education: Widening Participation, Place and Lifelong Learning, London: Forum for Access and Continuing Education, 107-126.

Connor, H, Dewson, S, Tyers, C, Eccles, J, Regan, J, and Aston, J (2001) Social class and higher education: Issues affecting decisions on participation by lower social class groups, Institute for Employment Studies, https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4621/1/RR267.pdf.

Daniels, N, Gillen, P,Casson, K, and Wilson, I (2019) ‘STEER: Factors to Consider When Designing Online Focus Groups Using Audiovisual Technology in Health Research,’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 18: 1–11, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1609406919885786.

Galbraith, G (2021) ‘What do students think and how do universities find out?, in Natzler, M (ed) (2021) What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say. Higher Education Policy Institute Report 140, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/What-is-the-student-voice_HEPI-Report-140_FINAL.pdf, 17-23.

Gibbs, A (1997) ‘Focus groups’, Social Research update 19, University of Surrey. [Online] Available at: https://sru.soc.surrey.ac.uk/SRU19.html.

Glass, GV and Worthen, BR (1972) ‘Educational evaluation and research: similarities and differences’, Curriculum Theory Network, 8/9: 149-165. https://www-jstor-org.bris.idm.oclc.org/stable/pdf/1179200.pdf?refreqid=excelsior%3A8f6b7387a14e827d49538c0c853c1c70&ab_segments=&origin=&acceptTC=1.

GOV.UK (2022a) Academic year 2020/21. Widening participation in higher education, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/widening-participation-in-higher-education.

GOV.UK (2022b) ‘Free school meals – gap’ from widening participation in higher education’, https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/data-tables/permalink/fdadb846-2cc2-4bb5-a8fb-9c7dc1ece5bd.

Hailat, K, and Alsmadi, S (2021) ‘An investigation of the push-pull factors influencing student selection of higher education: the case of Arabian Gulf students in the UK’, Journal of Public Affairs.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349930292_An_investigation_of_the_push-pull_factors_influencing_student_selection_of_higher_education_The_case_of_Arabian_Gulf_students_in_the_UK.

Leung, FH, and Savithiri, R (2009) ‘Spotlight on focus groups’, Canadian Family Physician, 55 (2): 218-19. [Online]. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2642503/ (accessed: 11 January 2022).

Levin-Rozalis, M (2003) ‘Evaluation and research: differences and similarities’, The Canadian Journal of Program Evaluation, 18:2, 1-31,https://evaluationcanada.ca/secure/18-2-001.pdf.

Natzler, M (ed) (2021) What is the student voice? Thirteen essays on how to listen to students and how to act on what they say. Higher Education Policy Institute Report 140, https://www.hepi.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/What-is-the-student-voice_HEPI-Report-140_FINAL.pdf.

Office for Students (2022) Evaluation in access and participation,

https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/evaluation/

Office for Students (2020) Transforming opportunity in higher education An analysis of 2020-21 to 2024-25 access and participation plans, https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/2efcda44-8715-4888-8d63-42c0fd6a31af/transforming-opportunity-in-higher-education.pdf

Raven. N (2021a) Realising ambitions. Supporting the HE progression of level 3 college students, unpublished report, Shire Grant Community Grant, Leicestershire County Council.

Raven, N (2021b) ‘Widening HE access from FE colleges: the key role played by subject tutors’, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/13603108.2021.1961173.

Raven. N (2022) Realising ambitions 2. Supporting the HE progression of level 3 college students. Findings from a follow-up study, unpublished report, Shire Grant Community Grant, Leicestershire County Council.


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Working class and working in higher education?: Transition(s) from a sociology PhD

by Carli Rowell

Carli Rowell won an SRHE Newer Researcher’s Award to explore working-class early career researchers lived experiences of moving through a Sociology PhD and into the academic workforce. It makes visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. The full report from this research award is available from the 2019 reports at Newer Researcher Awards | Society for Research into Higher Education (srhe.ac.uk)

This blog arises from a project which explores the lived experience of being working-class and moving through doctoral study into the academic workforce. It was motivated by the fact that higher education has historically existed for the working classes as a site of exclusion from participation, from knowledge production and from leadership. Despite the global massification of education, HE continues to operate as a classed pathway and bastion of classed knowledge (Walkerdine, 2021) especially so given academia’s classed ceiling. The project explored the lived experiences of 13 working-class early career researchers (ECRs) in moving through doctoral study into (and out of) the academic workforce. It sought to make visible the successes, hurdles, and ambivalences of this precarious and often invisible group of academics. I reflect here on some of the key emerging findings (in depth analysis continues) and sketch out early recommendations based on project findings.

The project was underpinned by the following research questions:

  1. In what ways, if at all, do first-generation working-class ECRs perceive their working-class background as affecting their experiences of and progression through doctoral study and into academia?
  2. How do they generate and navigate their own ‘strategies for success’ in their working context?
  3. What are the wider implications of these strategies for success, for example in their personal lives and/or their imagined futures in the academy?
  4. What can be done, if at all, by stake holders of UKHEs to address working-class doctoral students and early career researchers journey to and through a social-sciences PhD and into academia?

A Bourdieusian approach to social class was adopted. Whilst participants self-identified as coming from a working-class background and as being a first-generation (at the undergraduate level), class background and first-generation status were further explored and confirmed through in-depth interviews. All participants were UK domiciled doctoral students and ECRs across a range of university types. Initially the project sought to explore working-class doctoral and ECRs from across the social sciences, but participant recruitment soon revealed a skewedness towards the discipline of sociology. Thus, the decision was taken to adopt a disciplinary case study approach, focusing upon the discipline of sociology. In total, ten of the 13 participants were working in academia and the remaining three were working in the third sector. 12 had completed their PhD’s and one participant had made the decision to leave academia prior to completing the PhD. 12 participants identified as White British, and one participant identified as North African.

What challenges do working-class doctoral researchers and early career researchers face? How, if at all do they overcome such challenges and what can be done to support them in their journeys to and through academia?

The Important of Working-Class ‘Others’ in Academic and Navigating Funding

In journeying to the PhD receiving scholarship funding was foundational to participants’ possibility of progressing to doctoral study. All of my participants received full funding and without this they would not have been able to pursue a PhD. In addition to funding, working-class ‘Others’ (or what I have termed to be very important persons (VIPs) in academia were also central to participants experiences of successful navigating the transition to doctoral study. The VIP, often academic points of contact, who are mostly (though not always) from a working-class background served an important function as a kind of ‘gatekeeper’ to post-graduate study and academia. VIPs often sparked the notion that doctoral study was a possible pathway and provided a window into academia, demystifying academia and the postgraduate applications/scholarship process.

Participants’ accounts showed a range of barriers. Participants rejected the need to be geographically hyper-mobile in order to secure academic employment; they wanted and needed to care for family members and wished to remain connected to their working-class home and community. They spoke at length about the precarious nature of navigating the academic job market and academia per se; this alone was a key barrier to successful progression within academia. Participants also spoke about the multitude of skills and experiences they were required to demonstrate in order to navigate the academic job market. For working-class students who are the first in their family to study at university, knowing which endeavours to seek out and prioritise was a great source of confusion and anxiety. Uncovering how to play the game was not always easily identifiable.

Recommendations

This study leads to recommendations for institutions, funding bodies, and those working in academia in their recruitment, engagement and support with doctoral scholars and early career researchers from working-class backgrounds. These recommendations include, but are not limited to:

(a) schemes aimed at demystifying academia and supporting working-class aspiring doctoral researchers through their doctoral applications and funding process;

(b) funding bodies recognising the precarious financial position of doctoral students, especially so for those from working-class backgrounds and thus financially supporting doctoral students during times of ill health and exceptional circumstances and providing funding to doctoral students for the period immediately following the submission of the PhD; and

(c) Academic hiring committees and funders, postdoctoral or otherwise, should not look more favourably on those applications where the applicant holder is moving to another university, and should accept that some applicants might just prefer to stay, without having an exceptional reason such as caring commitments, or other exceptional academic reasons.

The current academic landscape is marked by precarity and rampant competition for an ever diminishing pool of academic jobs, often short-term, temporary contracts that demand geographical mobility. This in turn has significant impacts upon the knowledge being produced within and across UK universities (and globally). Working-class doctoral students and early career researchers face considerable barriers in their journeys to and through a PhD and into academia. Whilst there has been considerable debate and discussion of the gendered and ethnic makeup of UK higher education there is no equivalent commentary or critique concerned with illuminating, calling into question and critiquing the absence of working-class persons from academia. The future of UK HE, its leadership and scholarship are currently under threat. The values of diversity, accessibility and inclusivity, especially that of class diversity, that universities are quick to espouse should be at the centre of HE policy and practice, especially at the postgraduate level.

Institutions and funding bodies need to take into account, and take action to address, the specific challenges facing working-class doctoral researchers and early career academics. Working-class people should be actively encouraged and supported in their journeys to and through doctoral study and into higher education. As part of this project, a workshop aimed at demystifying the post-PhD post-doctoral funding application process and academic labour market will be run in Autumn 2022.

SRHE member Carli Rowell is a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sussex. She is currently an executive member of Gender and Education Association and convenes the British Sociological Associations Social Class Study Group.