srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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The SRHE Student Access and Experience Network

by Manny Madriaga

On the 28th February 2020, SRHE launched the new Student Access and Experience Network. The network merged two formerly separate networks to encompass the entire continuum of student participation in higher education from access to experience and success, providing an insight into academic, social as well as welfare aspects. (The launch event occurred on one of those non-strike days for those of us engaged in the UK’s UCU industrial action.) It also occurred as the Covid19 pandemic was beginning to emerge as a factor in the UK  life – the day before the launch, the UK government’s chief medical adviser, Professor Chris Whitty, indicated that the country could face at least a couple of months of disruption. At the time of writing, just over 40 days has passed since the launch event, and much has changed in all our lives. It definitely has affected our work, our relationships with each other, and our connections to our students. This has triggered us to open up a space to discuss many of the issues that we have recently confronted in the sector due to Covid19.  Particular questions have arisen as to whether university responses to the pandemic will reduce or exacerbate structural inequalities for students in accessing and engaging in HE. For instance, Dai O’Brien has described in a previous SRHE blogpost that teaching and working remotely during this time can be virtually inaccessible.          

The launch event highlighted key issues around the whole student lifecycle. The event began with questions around access and the history of university outreach programmes with Dr Julian Crockford’s presentation, ‘Tensions, Contradictions and Perpetual Loose Ends – ‘Widening Participation’ in HE Policy (audio and slides)’, outlining contentions around theory and practice in targeting interventions to specific groups of students. The seminar then extended conversations with Dr Camille Kandiko-Howson’s paper, ‘From Cinderella to Queen Bee: Student Experience Research (audio and slides)’, highlighting issues of student participation and success and the role of higher education institutions within that. Finally, the event provided an opportunity to explore inequalities in graduate outcomes with Professor Nicola Ingram and Dr Kim Allen sharing their recent work (audio and slides). 

From these stimulating presentations, questions and discussion emerged from the diverse audience of widening participation practitioners, researchers, and graduate students. In these conversations, we engaged with evidence of how higher education not only transforms students in positive, meaningful ways, but also significantly marginalises many. As a new network, we have set out to explore these processes of marginalisation and structural inequalities that affect the access and experiences of students in HE. The HE sector is rarely value-neutral and meritocratic. Instead, universities, and other higher education contexts, are highly contentious spaces, structured by class, gender, and race, among other things. Notions of the ‘traditional’ student obscure the varied pathways into higher education as well as the intersectional nature of students’ identities, including special needs backgrounds, experiences of care and estrangement, and age. It is worth mentioning here that Dr Kandiko-Howson rightly argued in her presentation that we should not be talking about the ‘student experience’ as something monolithic. We should be talking about student experiences. This is similar to the point made by Karen Gravett in her SRHE blogpost in challenging the dominant narrative of students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’ in their university transitions.   

The beauty of all three presentations at the SRHE SAEN launch event is the offer of conceptual tools to challenge dominant discourses in widening participation, student experience, and graduate employability.  Dr Crockford, for instance, shared his own experience of working in widening participation, shining a light on the data issues in monitoring and evaluating university access. Reflecting upon her own experience as convenor of SRHE’s Student Experience Network, Dr Kandiko-Howson held up and reminded attendees of the seven principles of good undergraduate teaching practice of Chickering and Gamson (1987). Being reminded of these principles parallels our own ambitions as a network in countering much of the deficit-oriented perceptions of students on issues of access, retention, and academic performance. Professor Ingram and Dr Allen introduced their ‘social magic conversion table’ to demonstrate how employers may sift and exclude certain groups of university graduates to construct their ‘ideal’ graduate hire.    

Although we come equipped with new knowledge and have made new connections with others across the sector, we do have anxieties and more questions about the state of higher education and our students during the time of global upheaval. The launch was one of the last events we actually attended in person. We are all working remotely and attempting to connect to our students with our online lectures. We are aware we are not the only ones. Thus, we are asking you to contribute to crowd-sourcing an array of the following to inform research, practice and policy in the area of widening access, student experience and progression in the light of Covid-19. Our goal is to bring together diverse perspectives, ensure all voices are heard, and start building a repository of ideas and solutions in response to current circumstances. 

Please add to the following Google document: https://tinyurl.com/sk6jv5h  

Based on the resultant log of initiatives we are hoping to bring together researchers and practitioners in moderated discussions in the coming months to inform policy and practice.

Dr Manny Madriaga is a Senior Lecturer in Education Studies at the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. He is a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Student Access and Experience Network.

Paul Temple


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Policy amnesia? – sorry, remind me again…

By Paul Temple

Burton Clark, considering ‘The Problem of Complexity in Modern Higher Education’ (reprinted in On Higher Education, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), says: “With each passing decade a modern or modernizing system of higher education is expected … to do more for other portions of society … from strengthening the economy … to developing individual talents and personalities and aiding the pursuit of happiness … This steady accretion of realistic expectations cannot be stopped, let alone reversed” (p386). But – and although one naturally hesitates to disagree with Clark on anything – perhaps not all “the system’s bundle of tasks” have to be accepted without asking some hard questions.

One of these tasks is considered by Lee Elliot Major and Pallavi Amitava Banerjee in HEPI’s Policy Note 20 (December 2019), which presents their thoughts on access to what they variously call “elite” and “highly-selective” universities in England. They describe how independent schools have got this more or less sewn up: over 60% of A-Level students at independent schools go to “highly-selective” universities, compared with 22% from state schools. (About 7% of English school students are in the independent sector.) Their proposed measures to deal with this undoubted social justice challenge require what Clark, in the section noted above, put nicely as the meshing of individual desires and institutional capabilities. So they argue that universities need to use contextual admission policies more effectively; they need to apply differential “standard” and “minimum” entry requirements to applicants from different backgrounds; they may need to apply random allocation policies; and more.

All of these policy ideas probably have much to be said for them. My problem with the whole approach, though, is that it lets central government direction of the English school system over recent years completely off the hook. Instead, we are asked to accept another accretion to expectations of universities, another task to add to the bundle, demanding that they address a problem created in – at least, certainly not solved by – another area of governmental responsibility.

What was once a locally planned and accountable system of “maintained” schools (of different types) is now a patchwork of academy chains and their schools; so-called free schools; and maintained schools (of different types) overseen by local authorities. Academies and free schools don’t have to follow the national curriculum, but maintained schools do. It’s a complete organisational dog’s breakfast, but, as with all the best government policies, it allows ministers to blame others for its failings by distributing responsibilities but not powers. Central government policies since 2010 (with, yes, Michael Gove in the frame as Education Secretary from 2010 to 2014, though previous Labour governments are not without blame here) were supposed to liberate school leaderships through these structural changes, thereby driving up standards. Most academic observers of the school system and the teaching in it never thought that structural changes would do this, but naturally government didn’t listen to them.

So here we now are, at the beginning of another period of Conservative rule, with the privileged independent school sector, with its spending per pupil about three times that of state schools (many of which are anyway in financial difficulties after years of falling budgets), naturally dominating access to elite universities. We must not now succumb to policy amnesia: the Conservative-led 2010 government and its Conservative successors destroyed the locally-accountable school system because of (we must assume) their hostility to local authorities as alternative sources of legitimacy. So, a decade later, the shiny new structure is producing no better results (to put it at its most generous) than what went before: “freeing” schools from local accountability wasn’t the problem, and so couldn’t be the answer.

But the Elliot Major and Banerjee proposals give ministers a handy escape route. They can say: “You see, even professors working in universities say they’re not doing enough to help disadvantaged young people: that’s where the problem lies, not in schools. I demand immediate action to end this scandal!”

When UUK – well-known for its bold statements on politically sensitive topics – next meets ministers to discuss access to higher education, my suggestion is that the UUK team adopt an air of baffled concern. “Minister, I’m afraid you’ll have to help us here: surely young people taking A-Levels now, having had all the benefits of the school system your predecessors designed, must be achieving far more than under the old system. So we don’t quite understand why you think universities now need to do more to accept people from disadvantaged backgrounds, when their schools will have done all the levelling-up that’s needed. Are we missing something, Minister?”

As civil servants say, I hope that’s helpful, UUK.

SRHE member Paul Temple is Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Higher Education Studies, UCL Institute of Education, University College London. See his latest paper ‘University spaces: Creating cité and place’, London Review of Education, 17 (2): 223–235 at https://doi.org/10.18546

Penny Jane Burke


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Access and widening participation in higher education

By Penny-Jane Burke

Questions of access and widening participation continue to pose significant challenges for policy-makers and practitioners in higher education with enduring and persistent inequalities at play.  Research has a central role to play in shaping the future directions of equity policy and practice, creating innovative methodologies and providing detailed and nuanced analysis to examine and unearth the root causes of ongoing inequalities. Research has traced the ways that inequalities are exacerbated by the multiple uncertainties and complexities characterising contemporary higher education, with profound changes being shaped by externally imposed and interconnecting political forces including globalisation, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, corporatisation, neo-patriarchy and neocolonialism.

In this contemporary context of higher education, there is increasing pressure for universities to position themselves as ‘world-class’, to aggressively compete in a highly stratified field driven by discourses of ‘excellence’ and to address the expectations of an all embracing league table culture striking at the very heart of university research and teaching. The ways that ‘excellence’ is placed in tension with ‘equity’ is unspoken and both ‘excellence’ and ‘equity’ are reduced to measurable outputs. Against this hyper-competitive and hierarchical landscape, concerns about widening participation, equity and social justice have been narrowed to aspirations of employability, efficiency and competency, with a strong emphasis on business and economic imperatives and logics. Continue reading