srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Fostering a sense of safety in higher education

by Lauren McAllister, Luke Ward, and Lauren Young

From left to right: Lauren Young, Lauren McAllister, and Luke Ward

As three lecturers who have taught on a postgraduate course for several years that covers topics around race, gender, identities, parenting, development, disabilities, mental health, wellbeing, and the associated experiences of managing these oppressive and regulatory discourses – we began to question how we can keep ourselves, and our students ‘safe’. We had reflected that we were not talking about a physical sense of safety here, but rather a felt sense of feeling understood, or perhaps even contained.

Having spoken to colleagues and other lecturers who similarly teach some topics that may be deemed ‘challenging’ or ‘sensitive’, we found that there was very little agreement with regards to how to approach some of these topics and discussions.

What does it mean to feel ‘safe’ within the higher education classroom?

Historically, this idea of a feeling of being ‘safe’ derived from feminist movements where a physical space was created for like-minded individuals to meet and explore their experiences (Flesner and Von Der Lippe, 2019). Within UK universities, safe space is also explored in the context of addressing sexual violence, harassment and discrimination (see: Anker and Von der Lippe, 2018; Uksaysnomore.org, 2022).  Research which did explore safety in the context of a relational sense in the classroom, either positioned the achievement of safety as unrealistic (Du Preez, 2012) or as necessary to ensure both educators and students feel comfortable unpacking difficult dialogues (Nolan and Roberts, 2021). Despite this discrepancy, there was a general agreement that lecturers felt anxious and ill-equipped when teaching sensitive/contested/difficult topics – often leading to them avoiding or minimising engagement in the teaching of such topics (Sue et al, 2010; Warde et al, 2022). We also noted that there was not a clear sense of agreement with regards to what is considered ‘sensitive’ in teaching. In fact, some pedagogical researchers argue that students experience topics differently, and assuming students homogenously feel safe fails to consider this diversity (Barrett, 2010).

As a result, we felt we had several core unanswered questions which drove our research, including: how then as educators do we manage the complexity of experiences, when topics are differently experienced? How do we balance our own anxieties around teaching topics that are differently experienced, and morally/ethically ensuring are students are feeling ‘safe’? And finally, are we as educators responsible for this management of the classroom space?

Our research: What did we do and what did we find?

Our research used collaborative methods to explore both students’ and lecturers’ experiences of ‘safety’ within the HE classroom. We conducted our project in four clear stages to ensure that lived experience was at the heart of any recommendations we established.

Firstly, we conducted five focus groups with students, unpacking the notion of safety and jointly creating a vignette which would be used to scaffold the lecturers’ focus group discussions. We then conducted four lecturer focus groups in which we similarly explored this notion of safety, before using the collaboratively created vignette. This vignette was presented in four stages, with discussion encouraged at each stage. The vignette anchored discussions and enabled lecturers to explore how they prepared for difficult topics; the management of an in-class disclosure; the impact of a dominant voice; and finally, how they end their sessions. Following the focus groups, both groups were thematically analysed separately, before themes were established across the groups, with the support of two students from the student focus groups. The final stage of the project was then to establish some useable recommendations in the form of a workbook/resource for lecturers, which was similarly created with the support of students.

Within the focus groups we found that both the students and the lecturers focused less on whether a topic was deemed ‘sensitive’ or not, and more so on the space ‘between’. Students for example talked about the need to feel heard, the trust between the group and the worry about how their contributions could be perceived. Lecturers noted the impossibility of being able to prepare students for challenging discussions, and many explored the need for students to feel uncomfortable and uncontained, as part of their learning.

Our findings raised two core areas of focus which we used as basis for the development of our workbook: the development of the foundation of relational trust, and the scaffolding of discussions. Building on scholars who positioned relationality as core to teaching and learning (Hobson and Morrison-Saunders, 2013), we developed the concept of ‘relational trust’. We conceptualised relational trust as this shared or mutual understanding between all members of the group (students and lecturers), of an expectation of disagreement, misunderstanding and challenge. We also recognised that this foundation was not a set or established entity, rather it was relationally created and needing to be continually nurtured through considered teaching and learning activities/experiences. In the implementation of our findings, we therefore began to focus less on the framing of a particular topic (ie as inherently safe, or not), and more so on ways through which conversations could be scaffolded within our teaching.

Ok, but what can I ‘take away’ from this and use within my teaching?

Based on the discussions with the students and staff, we can make several usable recommendations to support educators:

  1. Development of a classroom agreement: Firstly, we explored the importance of this foundation of relational trust, whilst also acknowledging that this foundation is never truly ‘set’ or done – rather it is something that needs to be continually nurtured (and revisited). Lecturers and students explored the benefits of a ‘class contract’ during the induction of a new group, whilst also acknowledging some key barriers to the effectiveness of this contract. We explored the importance of needing to revisit this class contract, acknowledging that this relational trust changes with the introduction of new members to the group, changes in topic, general changes in dynamic etc.
  2. Clear expectations of roles: Both lecturers and students lacked clarity with regards to the role of the lecturer – and in turn, the student – in the classroom space. In particular, there was a clear blurring of expectation of what was expected of the lecturer when engaging in discussions that may be considered challenging.  Lecturers generally have multiple roles within higher education, but our findings suggest there is an expectation for lecturers always to fulfil all these roles within the classroom, and that lecturer roles are not neatly compartmentalised into ‘teaching’, ‘module coordination’, ‘office hours’, ‘dissertation supervision’, ‘personal academic tutor sessions’ etc. Therefore, we explored the importance of having a discussion/activity where you actively engage with your students, considering the different expectations of the student, lecturer, and other facilities – to ensure that there is a mutual and shared understanding of roles.
  3. Scaffolding of discussions: Using ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1992) and trauma-informed pedagogical practices (Carello and Butler, 2013; Dana, 2018; Perry and Hambrick, 2008), as a basis, we recognised the multiple layers of comfort and safety and how these could be scaffolded within classroom discussions (see Figure 1). We have therefore provided a framework below through which lecturers can frame their discussions, enabling students to contribute and be heard in spaces that gradually feel more comfortable, negotiating possible language and elements of disclosure. For this activity, it is useful to consider an element of teaching, eg a core topic, an activity, discussion, skills practice, and reflect on/plan out how this might look, starting at the ‘individually’ zone and working your way towards ‘wider group/class’. For example, the activity might be a discussion point on ‘what childhood means to you’, which you may then ask students to (1) reflect on individually for a few minutes, and note this down on a post-it, before then (2) discussing this with the person next to them, noting areas of similarity and difference. Later, the students are then tasked with (3) forming small groups and assigning a particular developmental stage, asking them to mind-map the main themes of childhood for particular developmental stages. Before then (4) bringing the class together, asking each group, in turn, to share their discussions, starting with the group who was assigned the youngest developmental stage, working up to early adulthood, to produce a co-constructed developmental trajectory.

Figure 1: Zones of Comfort

Four circles all within each other showing how a task can gradually include more people (individual, pairs, small groups, and wider group)

Beyond these useable recommendations, we also argue that there needs to be more of a systemic shift within the university culture where work that involves caring for students needs is often undervalued or unseen (Baker et al, 2021). For example, some universities do not provide hours for staff to prepare and undertake course inductions which promote this relational trust, nor are they given time throughout the course delivery to consider activities that purposefully consider inter-class relationships.

Want to hear more? You can find us on Twitter: @Lauren8McA, @Lukewrd, @Laurenyoungcbt

Dr Lauren McAllister is a senior lecturer and programme lead for the MSc Child and Adolescent Mental Health course at the University of Northampton.

Dr Luke Ward is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health and a registered therapist working with children, young people, and families who have experienced trauma.

Lauren Young is a lecturer in child and adolescent mental health, a registered cognitive behavioural therapist, and a registered children’s nurse.

References

Anker, T and Von der Lippe, M (2018) ‘Controversial issues in religious education: How teachers deal with terrorism in their teaching’ in Schweitzer, F and Boschki, R (eds) Researching religious education: classroom processes and outcomes  Waxmann Verlag GmbH

Bronfenbrenner, U (1992) Ecological systems theory Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Dana, D (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation WW Norton & Company

Perry, BD and Hambrick, EP (2008) ‘The neurosequential model of therapeutics’ Reclaiming children and youth 17(3): 38-43


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What do students think about value for money?

by Kristina Gruzdeva

In 2022, the cost of living crisis meant communities across the UK had to adjust their behaviours and their spending. Many needed to learn to navigate within a complex energy market. Prospective university students were in a similar position, being expected to make a cost-conscious decision about their degree education with limited understanding of their options. In research conducted for my PhD, I invited first-year students to participate in focus groups to explore their orientations to their degree. Students were recruited through online and on-campus campaigns that were run in the autumn of 2019/20. The overall sample consisted of 51 participants (39 female, 10 male and 2 non-binary; 28 from ethnic minority groups; 14 were ‘first in family’ students). All participants were first-year students who started their degree at a Russell Group University, with a balance across all five faculty groupings in the university. I developed a typology to show how students perceive their degree, their beliefs about the financial implications of going to university and how they define value for money. In England, undergraduate fees of £1000 were introduced more than 20 years ago, raised to £3000 in 2006, and to £9000 more than ten years ago. My findings suggest that even now, five years after the Higher Education and Research Act legislated for an HE market, it is problematic to rely on informed student choice as a basis for the market’s operation.

Students in the first category of the typology view their degree as an essential requirement for their career. Students in this category are enrolled in STEM or Medicine courses and have a clear idea of what they would like to do upon graduation. Their family background is diverse, with some choosing to follow their parents’ footsteps, and others being first in their family to go to university. Students in this category hold shared views on employability, graduate salaries, and value for money. The data show that employability and career aspirations are important to first-year students transitioning into HE (Mullen et al, 2019). Metrics of graduate employability gave these students some reassurance and helped them to narrow down their options in choosing courses. These students did not look for information about graduate salaries and explained this by studying for a degree that leads to in-demand jobs. They comment that information about graduate salaries was “already there” when they looked for other kinds of information about their degree. Students who view their degree as an essential requirement report that their degree provides good value for money.

The second category of students described their degree as an investment. These students also had a career-oriented approach to their education, but their career plans were less defined compared with the plans of students in the first category. They studied a wide range of degree courses and came from diverse backgrounds. When asked about their awareness around employability, some students reported that they had come across information about it, whereas others said that they did not know much. When prompted to explain why they did not search for such information, these students suggested their career plans had not crystallised yet, so they were not sure how to interpret such information and to what extent it would be relevant to them. As in the first category, these students reported that they did not look for information about graduate salaries. They assumed such information would not be relevant because they had not yet decided what to do upon graduation. They had a mix of views on value for money. Some believed that their degree would offer good value for money because it would open doors to many opportunities, whereas others had a different opinion. Perceptions of poor value for money were related to instances when students’ expectations had not been met. For example, a few students had expected more contact hours. Others had expected that their maintenance loan would cover the costs of their accommodation.

The third category of students described their degree as a desirable experience. These students were enrolled in Social Sciences and Humanities courses. Importantly, these students came from families where at least one parent holds a degree. Their decision to study at university was driven by their academic interests or a belief that getting accepted onto a course would be easy. When asked about whether they considered employability metrics, these students said that they did not. They also did not look for information related to graduate salaries. One student, reflecting on her decision to study at university, suggested that prospective students had tunnel vision and were not concerned about their career prospects. Two individuals commented that education is not about jobs and appeared to look down on the other members of their discussion groups, who shared the view that their education offered knowledge and skills for work. There was a mix of views on value for money. The social and wider personal benefits of studying for a degree were attributed to good value for money. In this category it was rare to find perceptions of poor value for money; such perceptions came from unfulfilled expectations related to contact hours.

Student career aspirations, or lack thereof, played a dominant role in shaping students’ views on their education and how they perceived value for money. Most students in my study did not actively search for information related to employability or graduate salaries; rather, they assumed the economic value of their degrees. These findings challenge the consumer-oriented approach to HE because focus group participants did not appear to act as informed consumers, which is problematic in an HE sector supposedly driven by market imperatives.

Kristina Gruzdeva is a Research Facilitator at the University of Birmingham. Kristina’s research interests are in higher education policy, mainly in relation to student finance, student choices, and marketisation. This blog is based on a chapter from her recently completed PhD. Email: k.gruzdeva@bham.ac.uk


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But what do the numbers say? How the movement towards datafication might change English higher education

by Peter Wolstencroft, Elizabeth Whitfield and Track Dinning

“The simple truth is that the average student leaves university with £45,800 of debt and if they have nothing to show for it then we have failed them” (Hansard, 2021). The speaker of these words was the then Minister for Higher and Further Education, Michelle Donelan and the sentiment underpins many of the current mechanisms used for assessing quality in English HE. The publication by the Office for Students (OfS) of their new expectations for student outcomes (OfS, 2022a) has, once again, triggered a debate about how we measure the quality of a university education and its impact on the students that study in English universities. The stakes have never been as high, as the OfS state: ‘Universities and colleges that perform below these thresholds could face investigation to allow the OfS to understand the reasons for their performance. If, following investigation, performance is not adequately explained by a provider’s context, the OfS has the power to intervene and impose sanctions for a breach of its conditions of registration.’ (OfS, 2022a)

Since the Browne Report (2010) normalised the payment by students of increased fees for undergraduate programmes, universities have faced a balancing act between two separate imperatives that have influenced the relationship between students and universities. These two approaches are firstly, the educational imperative, that stresses the primacy of the learning experience and the student’s journey through their studies and secondly, the economic imperative, that requires organisations to ensure that their finances allow them to continue to operate. It can be argued that the growing dominance of the latter is rooted in the increased measurement of the sector and how this is used to define the quality of provision provided by any given university. In practical terms, what this means is that, for English universities, adherence to benchmarking figures and ensuring that targets are met may be a key driver in decision making at all levels of the organisation.

Whilst the datafication of education (Stevenson, 2017) is not a new concept, the new OfS guidelines are likely to exacerbate this approach, indeed it can be seen as a formalisation of an ongoing process. A key consequence of this shift has been a reimagining of the relationship between the student and the institution. Originally characterised by some in the post-Browne era as one akin to a customer purchasing a product, it evolved into the student being viewed as a consumer who uses a service but who is also an active participant in the learning process and from there to a co-creator of the process (Tomlinson, 2017). Whilst this apparent balancing of influence has generally been viewed as having a positive benefit in terms of the student experience, the shift exemplified by the new regulations means that the performance of students is increasingly measured in quantitative terms. The danger with this approach is that there is the potential for universities to focus on the quantitative measure of success alone, which would neglect all of the wider, but not measured, improvements in the student journey that have occurred since the Browne Report, such as the increasing amount of employer engagement and the amplification of the student voice.

Concerns increased with the publication of the latest expectations from the OfS and their focus on quantitative measures. Whilst other quality mechanisms such as the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and Ofsted inspections rely on a mixture of quantitative measurement and a supporting narrative, the new guidelines focus largely on data and the outputs for each student. Targets are set for continuation and completion rates as well as graduate outcomes and these targets are aggregated in each of a phalanx of different subsections of students. Many concerns within the sector relate to the vague nature of the wording regarding non-achievement of the targets. Despite the assertion that “(the) OfS only makes a judgement that a provider is not compliant after considering the context in which it is operating” (OfS, 2022a), there is currently no guidance as to how this consideration will be achieved.

English universities have greeted the new guidance with some concern: for example, the latest intervention focuses partially on the salaries students receive fifteen months after completing their programme of study (known as ‘graduate outcomes’). This is controversial as it is a measure that attempts to compare very disparate programmes. The Complete University Guide (2022) quotes average salaries after fifteen months’ employment for accounting and finance as £25,000;  optometry is as low as £17,000 and music degrees average £21,000. In contrast medicine graduates earn an average £30,000. Aside from the issue of disparities in earnings, there is also a lack of accounting for regional disparities with Statista (2021) reporting the median annual earning for full-time employees in the North West being 30% lower than salaries in London. This inequality and its impact on graduate outcomes has already been cited in the decision by some universities to stop offering programmes despite their educational benefit (Weale, 2022).

The backdrop to the revised guidelines (commonly known as ‘B3’ after the subsection of the document it occupies) has been an ongoing discussion about the desirable outcomes of degree level education. The discussion has increasingly focused on how to root out supposed poor practice. If students invest significant amounts of money in their education then many assert with the HE Minister that they should get ‘value for money’ and a positive outcome when their studies are complete. Defining these points drives much of the current discussions. What constitutes a ‘low quality degree’ has been one facet of this discussion, but more pertinent is the achievement gap that exists between differing groups of students and differing programmes of study. Whilst this has always been known, increasing spending has meant that there has been greater scrutiny on groups and programmes perceived to be underachieving.

The revised guidelines focus on definitions; the changes might seem relatively minor when looked at in isolation, but when grouped with other changes in the sector they might have profound implications for university procedures. Universities previously had to ensure that benchmark figures for retention and achievement were met for whole cohorts, but the sector will now subdivide student groups using criteria such as gender, sex or background (OfS, 2022b) and explore the performance of each group. This is likely to change the approach for many universities, as often these subgroups are likely to be small in number, which means that one student’s failure to complete their studies is likely to have a proportionally greater impact on the university as a whole. There is therefore a considerable danger that universities which serve large numbers of disadvantaged students will be less inclined to take risks in admission: this will narrow, rather than widen, access and participation.

On the surface the definitions appear straightforward, with universities needing to make sure that a set percentage of their students continue with their studies, complete their studies and are in what is deemed ‘graduate employment’ within 15 months of graduation. However these figures may lead to a significant change in the way universities manage data and indeed, deal with students.

Under pressure to meet set benchmarks, universities are likely to focus even more attention on the definition of a student within HE. There is always a set period of time between a student registering and when they are included in official figures. This allows for ‘buyer’s remorse’ when students withdraw early on and it also allows people to transfer between programmes if they decide that their initial choice was not the one they want to pursue. Students who withdraw from a programme before the cut-off date are not taken into account in the final figures used when calculating retention figures. This change might affect English HE in the same way as it did when introduced to the further education (FE) sector. Within FE, students were not counted in final figures until they had been enrolled for 42 days. This meant that many organisations completed what became known as a ‘data cleanse’ before the cut-off date, a process where students who were deemed to be at risk of failing their programme were removed from their studies, or moved to a different award.

The danger when introducing new metrics is always that there will be unintended consequences. Whilst trying to measure the quality of a programme of study is clearly worthwhile, the primacy of the data could cause problems. The need to ensure that programmes of study are seen as high quality means that ignoring metrics is often foolhardy and can have detrimental effects on the whole university. Instead, careful analysis is likely, to ensure that programmes score as highly as possible in each category. This could lead to a range of ethical dilemmas regarding the amount of support students receive if they are in danger of failing in their studies.

Looking further down the timeline, the shift towards the datafication of the sector is likely to affect the validation of new programmes of study. Whilst employability has been a strand within many programmes for some years, potential graduate outcomes are likely to be viewed as critical to the acceptance of a programme of study, marking a significant shift away from a purely educational analysis of proposed programmes. The challenge is to make sure that programmes of study continue to be challenging and rewarding for students but that they also meet targets, close attainment gaps and ensure positive learning outcomes for graduates.

The new guidelines are another stepping stone in the balancing act between educational and economic imperatives. The new guidelines set clear targets but it is the unclear consequences of not meeting these targets that will cause universities most concern. Universities with large numbers of disadvantaged students might need a fundamental rethinking of their student population. If there is no allowance for the incoming student population when measuring outputs, universities will need to review the level of support they provide and face the ethical dilemmas involved. Without greater clarity from the OfS, failure to meet targets may mean that more programmes in subject areas with historically low graduate starting salaries will close, data will increasingly become the key determinant of educational decision making and the relationship between students and universities will once again be redefined.

Dr Peter Wolstencroft is a Deputy Director at Liverpool Business School, part of Liverpool John Moores University. He has held a variety of roles in the sector and together with his co-authors is dedicated to enhancing the student experience for all students and in particular for those for whom higher education is a new experience. He is the author of numerous articles on education and co-authored the bestselling textbook ‘The Trainee Teacher’s Handbook: A companion for initial teacher training’.

Dr Elizabeth Whitfield is an Assistant Academic Registrar: Student Experience at Liverpool John Moores University. She is also a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a member of the programme team for the postgraduate Certificate in HE at LJMU. Current project and leadership roles focus on the student experience, in particular student communications and digital support schemes.

Dr Track Dinning is a Deputy Director at Liverpool Business School, part of Liverpool John Moores University, a Senior Fellow of Higher Education Academy and a Certified Management and Business Educator.  Her research focuses on Entrepreneurial Education and she utilises her research to develop and enhance the curriculum in the field of employability and enterprise. She has a shared vision with her co writers to ensure a high quality student experience for every student.

References

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2010) Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education (“The Browne Report”). Available at:

(accessed 1st October 2022)

Hansard (2021) University Tuition Fees Debate, Volume 702

Office for Students (2022a) New Expectations for Student Outcomes Available at : OfS sets new expectations for student outcomes – Office for Students (accessed 1st October 2022)

Office for Students (2022b) Associations Between Characteristics of Students Available at: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/data-and-analysis/associations-between-characteristics-of-students/ (accessed 18th October 2022)

Statista (2021) Media annual earnings for full-time employees in the United Kingdom in 2021, by region Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/416139/full-time-annual-salary-in-the-uk-by-region/ (accessed 8th October 2022)

Stevenson, H (2017) ‘The “Datafication” of Teaching: Can Teachers Speak Back to the Numbers?’ Peabody Journal of Education 92:4, 537-557 DOI:10.1080/0161956X.2017.1349492

The Complete University Guide (2022) What do graduates do and earn? Available at: https://www.thecompleteuniversityguide.co.uk/student-advice/careers/what-do-graduates-do-and-earn (accessed 8th October 2022)

Tomlinson, M (2017) ‘Student perceptions of themselves as ‘consumers’ of higher education’ British Journal of Sociology of Education 38:4, 450-467 DOI:10.1080/01425692.2015.1113856

Weale, S (2022) ‘Philip Pullman leads outcry after Sheffield Hallam withdraws English lit degree, The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/jun/27/sheffield-hallam-university-suspends-low-value-english-literature-degree (accessed 18th October 2022)


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How do we enable transformative university transitions?

by Rita Hordósy

The Covid-19 pandemic meant a ‘swift and acute’ disruption to student experiences through the ‘dissolution of the physical and social environment’, and immediate financial hardship experienced by many. The issues of student retention, success, connectedness, and feeling included remain pressing issues for current entrants. To look at what it means to become a university student and a graduate, and to understand these issues in the whole student lifecycle, it is useful to draw on experiences from before the pandemic. Using yearly interviews with 40 home, undergraduate full-time students who started their studies in 2013/2014, my research at an English northern red brick university (NRBU) focused on how students understood, and made sense of, their experiences of student life as they moved into, through, and beyond university. All outcomes (research reports and papers) of this project are available via this link.  

Through the market system, a homogenised university experience became something packaged and sold, with the social elements all being included in the price tag to market one particular version of being at university. However, university choice and participation is experienced differently in a system that remains stratified and socially segregated, with large variety in student budgets creating differential contexts for learning.  

University space and time 

To make sense of how the university space and time are felt by students, I conceptualised transformative university transitions as a dynamic, perpetual and uncertain series of changes and movements through time and space to become a university student, and subsequently a graduate. For James, NRBU and its city as the spaces for reflection are intricately linked to who he became throughout the four years of his BA and MA: 

You, kind of, realised the limits of yourself and you realised the potentials of yourself, and that means that it harbours a weird significance, (…) that, kind of, roots you here. Not as intimate as it is your home, but as a second home of a place where you can feel like you belong, and that it is your city. James, fourth interview 

The overall university time is often understood based on the cycles of the academic year, chronicling how their approach changed to the wider community, their own learning and their future. Assessing her university time, Mary discusses the complex interlinks of exploring questions of identity, her relationships to others, and shifting focus on her university studies:   

I think I can’t imagine my life if I hadn’t gone [to university]. (…) It’s made me the way I am, I think. I absolutely loved Uni. Each year was so different as well, for me it was quite distinct. The first year was sort of a bit mental and kind of discovering who I was and all that… Second year was probably the worst. (…) I got a First but I don’t know, I think the change from the first year felt difficult. (…) I tried to calm down a bit in the second year but I went too far and I just had a boring time. And then third year I kind of had a bit of a balance between the two. (…) my life here was set up and I liked the house, and I was in a good relationship, do you know what I mean? And the course was getting really good and the dissertation…

[Mary, fourth interview]

The changing foci – as discussed below – of becoming social, academic, and a university graduate can be understood as stressors, where budgeting constraints and financial futures cut across all else, and can cause constant friction for the poorest students. Similarly, physical and mental ill-health of students, their families and friends, sometimes with tragic outcomes, can have a profound impact on their experience and outcomes.   

Social aspects of acclimatisation 

Although the first academic year is characterised by a sense of arrival, the new environment, timeframe, concepts, rules and especially new peers make university transitions emotionally overwhelming. The predominant stress factor throughout this period relates to the social requirements of university life, with the first few weeks even more tumultuous. However, centring living in university halls, joining sport clubs and other extracurricular participation can be exclusionary through high costs or basing it on excessive alcohol consumption. 

Finding a university community is key: the experience of being a student is constructed in social spaces, to be retained through the friendships made, ‘who I’ll keep in touch with forever’ [Chris, fourth interview]. The importance of peer groups relates to solving everyday issues and information gaps, support in their studies, and learning from and about each other in a broad sense, as Olivia points out: 

I think just learning off people has been, like, probably the most important thing actually, and not even from studies. (…) the people that you meet and the groups that you go to, through university, things you feel that become really important to you.

[Olivia, fourth interview] 

Upon finding a social fit within the university community, students talk about seeing beyond the initially perceived homogeneity and coming to appreciate the diversity across the institution. This then allows them to ‘stick out’, but also orientate themselves towards their academic duties.  

Learning to be academic 

Given learning experiences exist on a continuum within the life course, students will initially attempt to adapt their (often unsuitable) learning and revision techniques, whilst also grappling with a new learner identity. Upon gaining some level of familiarity and comfort with how the university operates, the academic aspects start falling into place. This tends to coincide with the second year, where the narrower and deeper focus on the subject area is compared to the broad and disjointed nature of the first academic year. 

To conquer the complex and unbounded nature of university knowledge, most students start actively prioritising and being selective on the basis of perceived importance within and between modules, tailoring the academic experiences to their needs. Students actively seek out more personalised relations with university staff and start go recognise the wide range of attitudes and interests of their tutors and lecturers. For instance, Kim discusses how her relationship with one of her lecturers changed over time: 

I think it definitely gets more friendly towards third year, there was one lecturer that we had in first year who was terrifying. (…) But then we’ve had her for a module this term and she just chats to people, she makes jokes in the lectures, she’ll show you pictures of her dog and stuff. I feel like they become a bit more friendly with you, as if you’re on the way to being on their kind of level intellectually maybe, as well as more mature.

[Kim, third interview]

Countering the alienation of the first academic year, second and especially third year students start to feel that they are known, and seen as individuals. The personalisation of learning along the clearly defined interests and the growing independence allow for creation of knowledge. Dissertations as capstones mean students become experts in an area they are passionate about: Aina, in her Masters year expressed her goal of ‘contributing to the actual field [of research] and just developing my career’ through a PhD. It is indeed through becoming passionate via the university studies, extracurricular activities, internships and part-time jobs that helps formulating career plans.

Towards becoming a graduate 

Throughout the final year, time once more becomes tumultuous, given the concerns around finishing university and figuring out what is next. As opposed to initial career ideas that looked at the ‘rest’ of the students’ lives, the later interviews saw their thinking focus on a shorter time-horizon. Robert tentatively embraces the uncertainty, keeping his options open: 

It’s not like I’m stuck down one route now. I’ve still got a whole load of different things to choose from, which is bad in a way, because it means I’ve got to make a decision at some point about what I’m going to do and it might be easier if someone just went “there, do that”.

[Robert, fourth interview]

This element of making important decisions prompts a distinction of ‘proper jobs’ versus ‘bog standard jobs’, with some graduates opting for ‘graduate gap years’. What some participants describe as a ‘random’, ‘bog standard’, ‘shitty’, or ‘normal’ job, tends to be in an industry not related to their degree: in catering, retail, service industry or the care sector. Such roles are considered short term, offer substantive flexibility for the graduate, do not require specific qualifications, and are not competitive – simply put, students are not invested in them. Conversely, graduate jobs are described as ‘real’, ‘adult’, ‘proper’, ‘a more academic’, a ‘career kind of’ job that they ‘would enjoy’. These are in sectors and industries they are striving to work in, and necessitate a degree and some specific skills. These competitive roles require flexibility from the graduate, but remunerate better, whilst also promising career progression. The ‘real’ jobs necessitate emotional investment and dedication, with constraints on leaving these roles. 

There are three key features of how graduates are thinking about their futures. First, they see themselves as graduates of their course at NRBU, hoping to work in a related sector, using their disciplinary knowledge or employing some specific skills they developed. Second, graduates aim to find an employer or role they can believe in, wanting to see the value of their work on a smaller scale and generally do good in the world – this is sometimes juxtaposed with prioritising earnings. For instance, Khaled in the third interview talks about a ‘materialistic view’ of ‘just doing [a job] because I’m getting money’ not fitting with how he ‘was brought up to think’, connecting this to his working-class background. Finally, they also reflect on their newfound confidence: in their abilities, them as people in social contexts, knowing their own strengths and weaknesses. It is this confidence that allows graduates to embrace the complexity of potential options and the trade-offs, as well as non-linear and serendipitous futures. As Amina suggested:   

I have changed, it’s been, I don’t know how to describe it, (…) I’m not the same person I was when I first initially started personality-wise. I’ve got so much more self-confidence in me as well, which I’ve never had and I’ve learned so much over the past three years (…) I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change.

[Amina, third interview] 

Recognising the multitude of dimensions at play, a diverse and interlinked set of future plans emerge, entangled in a commitment to personal concerns, values and identity, social relationships, belonging to a community and a place, as well as the wider structural constraints. Such limits are linked to financial insecurity and a sense of urgency to find a job, any job. Further, with fewer family connections future graduates are less likely to gain suitable work experience or help with job applications. 

How to enable transformative university transitions?  

Through their non-linear, multidimensional, and diverse transitions, this generation of students became (mostly) independent and (certainly) reflexive adults. University as a transformative space and time is much more than an investment into one’s human capital that should pay off as employment opportunities and earnings, or the way to fulfil short-term labour market needs. Graduates become engaged members of a broader community, gain substantive expertise in their chosen area of interest, and develop a broad plan for their futures.   

To foster transformative transitions for all, embracing the diversity in student and graduate experiences that also change over time is key. This means, first, knowing who students are, using sufficient scaffolding to make knowledge accessible, and fostering an inclusive university community. Second, a whole-institutional support provision throughout the student lifecycle that understands transitions as changeable and diverse could ensure more equitable access. Finally, stable and substantive non-repayable financial support is fundamental to level student experiences for those from poor backgrounds, especially in the context of the current cost of living crisis.     

SRHE member Rita Hordósy is a Nottingham Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and a co-convener of the SRHE Student Access and Experience Network. Her current research compares and contrasts the research / teaching nexus across European universities in Hungary, England and Norway. This blog is based on her recent paper ‘I’ve changed in every possible way someone could change’ – transformative university transitions’, in Research Papers in Education.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/rhordosy


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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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Tunnel vision: higher education policy and the Office for Students

by Rob Cuthbert

In January 2022 the Office for Students published three sets of consultations, 699 pages of proposals for the regulation of student outcomes, the determination of teaching excellence, and the construction of indicators to measure student experience and outcomes. These were not separate initiatives, but part of a co-ordinated programme which needs to be seen in the context of the long-awaited government response to the 2019 Augar report, finally published in March 2022[1].

The OfS consultation announced that numerical thresholds will underpin requirements for minimum acceptable student outcomes at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Universities and colleges not meeting these could face investigation, with fines and restrictions on their access to student loan funding available as potential sanctions. For full-time students studying a first degree, the thresholds require: 80% of students to continue into a second year of study; 75% of students to complete their qualification; 60% of students to go into professional employment or further study.

Not just numbers? OfS say: “we recognise that using our indicators to measure the outcomes a provider delivers for its students cannot reflect all aspects of the provider’s context … If a provider delivers outcomes for its students that are below a numerical threshold, we will make decisions about whether those outcomes are justified by looking at its context. This approach would result in a rounded judgement about a provider’s performance.”

But then: “… such an approach may present a challenge for some providers. This is because they must only recruit students where they have understood the commitment they are making to support their students to succeed, irrespective of their backgrounds. … Most universities and colleges relish this challenge and already deliver on it. However, some do not. While some may offer opportunities for students to enter higher education, we also see low continuation and completion rates and disappointing levels of progression to relevant employment or further study.” A warning, then, for “some”, but not “most”, providers.

The OfS approach will be fine-grained: “We would consider whether a provider has complied with condition B3 in relation to each separate indicator or split indicator. This enables us to identify ‘pockets of provision’ where performance in a specific subject, for students with specific characteristics, or in relation to partnership arrangements, falls below a numerical threshold”.

‘Selecting’ universities might think that ‘contextual judgment’ will rescue them, but may still decide to play safe in subjects where the numbers don’t look so good. ‘Recruiting’ universities, especially in ‘levelling up’ areas, might be looking at the numbers across many programmes and considering their strategy. Everyone will be incentivised to play safe and eliminate what are numerically the most marginal candidates, subjects and courses. And everyone thinks this will discriminate against disadvantaged students. For example, the University Alliance response published on 16 March 2022 said: “The University Alliance is gravely concerned that the proposals outlined by government could have unintended consequences for the least privileged students in society.”

Sally Burtonshaw (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 26 January 2022: “As the dust begins to settle on the 699 pages of Office for Students’ (OfS) consultations and accompanying documents published on Thursday and providers across the sector begin to draft responses (deadline March 17th), it feels like there is a gaping chasm between the sector and its regulator. Language in the accompanying press release with references to ‘crack downs’, ‘tough regulatory action’ and ‘protecting students from being let down’, jars with a sector which has contributed so much throughout the pandemic.”

Diana Beech (London Higher) blogged for HEPI on 7 March 2022 about the government response to Augar and the OfS consultations: “… what we are facing now is not a series of seemingly independent consultations concerned with the minutiae of regulation, but a multi-pronged and coordinated assault on the values our higher education sector holds dear.” Diana Beech was a policy adviser to the last three ministers for universities.

SRHE Fellow Peter Scott summed it up like this: “This … ‘direction of travel’ is … based on the assumption that we should continue to distinguish between FE and HE, vocational and academic tracks, in terms of their social bases and costs. Of course, that is the current reality. Universities, especially Russell Group ones, draw a disproportionate number of their students from socially-privileged backgrounds, while FE is badly under-funded. This is why it makes (economic) sense for the Government to try to divert more students there. But is that sustainable in a country that aspires to being both democratic and dynamic? Most other countries have moved on and now think in terms of tertiary systems embracing HE, FE, on-the-job training, adult and community learning, the virtual stuff … bound together by flexible pathways and equitable funding – and, above all, by fair access. In the UK, Wales is setting the pace, while Scotland has had its ‘Learner Journey 15-24’ initiative. In England, sadly, there is no echo of such positive thinking.”

Status hierarchies must, it seems, be maintained, and not just between HE and FE, but also between universities. Contrary to expectations the Teaching Excellence Framework will rise from the ashes of the Pearce Review via the OfS’s second consultation. Earlier versions of TEF did not reliably reproduce the existing status hierarchies; some Russell Group institutions even suffered the indignity of a bronze rating. Clearly this could not be allowed to continue. So now: “The proposed TEF process is a desk-based, expert review exercise with decisions made by a panel of experts to be established by the OfS. The panel would consider providers’ submissions alongside other evidence. … TEF assessment should result in an overall rating for each provider. The overall rating would be underpinned by two aspect ratings, one for student experience and one for student outcomes but there would be no rating of individual subjects within a provider.” Such undifferentiated provider-level arrangements will surely be enough to ensure no further embarrassment for those with the highest reputations.

There will still be gold, silver and bronze awards, but not for all. The OfS script is worthy of Yes Minister: “… our minimum baseline quality requirements establish a high quality minimum for all providers. Therefore, quality identified that is materially above the relevant baseline quality requirements should be considered as ‘very high quality’ or ‘outstanding quality’ … ‘Outstanding quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is among the very highest quality found in the sector for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider. … ‘Very high quality’ signifies a feature of the student experience or outcomes that is materially above the relevant minimum baseline quality requirements for the mix of students and courses taught by a provider.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

As Sir Humphrey might have put it: it’s like the Olympics – not everyone will get on the podium. And it’s like ice dancing: judges hand out the marks based on how they rate the performance. The table of “features of excellence” spells out the criteria, for example: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to an outstanding academic experience for its students.” Whereas for high quality: “The provider uses research in relevant disciplines, innovation, scholarship, professional practice and/or employer engagement to contribute to a very high quality academic experience for its students.” Is the difference clear? If not, don’t worry, because the TEF Panel will decide.

Nick Hillman blogged for HEPI on 21 January 2022 about the OfS initiatives, reflecting on the limited success of previous attempts to shift evaluation towards metricisation, and Debbie Mcvitty blogged for Wonkhe on 24 January 2022 with a helpful potted history.There will be no surprises in the outcomes of the consultations. Whether or not the Titanic is sinking, we are consulted only on how to arrange the deckchairs. As HEPI’s Nick Hillman said: “I vividly recall what Les Ebdon, the former Director for Fair Access, said a few years ago when he was asked, “What will the Office for Students do?” His answer was, “It’s very simple. I can tell you exactly what the OfS will do. It will do whatever the government of the day wants it to do.” And so it has proved.”

Let us, then, look not at the entirely predictable outcomes, but at the style the OfS has adopted to reach them. The consultation on regulation of outcomes is telling. It takes 100 pages to assemble a rational-bureaucratic edifice in rational-bureaucratic language, with chapter headings including: “… making judgments about compliance with condition B3 … Addressing statistical uncertainty in the assessment of condition B3 … Taking regulatory action when a breach is identified …”. There could have been headings like: “How do we know how good the performance is?” or “What if something goes wrong?”. But that would have exposed the deeper questions, for which answers have already been decided. Instead we are drowned with bureaucratic detail. Details are always necessary, but we should be reminded of why they are needed. Instead these documents do their best to obscure the fait accompli which is their starting point, with a grinding remorseless pseudo-rationality which encourages you to lose sight of purposes and values.

In 699 pages of consultation the OfS has done its bureaucratic best to profess transparency, openness and rigour, while diverting our energies and attention from what an experienced ministerial adviser called the ‘assault on the values which our HE sector holds dear’. The consultations amount to a detailed enquiry about how exactly these values should be assaulted. We are in a consultation tunnel with only one track. What we can see is probably not the light at the end of the tunnel, it may be the lights from an oncoming train.

Rob Cuthbert, editor of SRHE News and Blog, is emeritus professor of higher education management, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Fellow of SRHE. He is an independent academic consultant whose previous roles include deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England, editor of Higher Education Review, Chair of the Society for Research into Higher Education, and government policy adviser and consultant in the UK/Europe, North America, Africa, and China.

Email rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk, Twitter @RobCuthbert.


[1] Covered elsewhere in this issue of SRHE News. SRHE members can read this and previous editions of SRHE News via https://srhe.ac.uk/my-account/


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Extracurricular activities: does paid work count?

by Teri-Lisa Griffiths, Dr Jill Dickinson, and Catherine Day

The continued diversification of the student body means that students are engaged with a range of extracurricular activities, both on and off-campus. Our recently published research explores how these experiences impact student self-efficacy, that is participants’ perceptions of their ability to carry out a range of tasks associated with academic success. Here we discuss some of the key findings from the research and pose additional questions in the context of recent events.

Context

With the continued focus on graduate employability and outcomes, the benefit of extracurricular activity (‘ECA’) engagement is often promoted as a way for students to strengthen applications for opportunities following graduation. ECAs are considered useful for the development of students’ ‘soft skills’; those skills which are transferable, and which may help at the beginning of students’ graduate careers. The authors’ previous research illustrated how students have absorbed this message, and they often seek out opportunities which they perceive as valuable for their future career as a result. Students tend to be engaged in a variety of ECAs including: student activist and representative activity, work experience and internships, sport, and special interest groups. Following calls to expand understanding of what constitutes a legitimate ECA, and to include those who engage with activities necessitated by their personal circumstances, our study accepted any activity undertaken outside of timetabled classes as an ECA. To expand on this approach, we will explore the activity of paid work in some detail in this blog, as well as outlining some of the key findings of our study.

Student self-efficacy

Our study drew on the concept of self-efficacy, a person’s own belief in their ability to carry out particular tasks within specific domains, to understand more about how ECAs might confer benefits to students in higher education. Utilising and adapting a measure by Bandura, we asked respondents to rank their ability to carry out tasks related to success at university, including academic self-efficacy (eg I can get myself to study when there are more interesting things to do), external reach (I can make contact with professionals working in careers which interest me), relatedness (I can work well in a group) and help seeking (I can get tutors to help me when I get stuck on coursework). Although self-efficacy is believed to be restricted to specific domains, there is a hypothesis that high self-efficacy in one domain may positively influence self-efficacy in other domains, provided that the individual sees similarities between the activities carried out within each. We measured respondents’ student self-efficacy at two separate points in the academic year to understand more about how ECA engagement may influence student self-efficacy beliefs over time.

The impact of extracurricular activities on student self-efficacy

Our findings demonstrated a moderate relationship between higher self-efficacy and engagement with ECAs. All respondents experienced an increase in their student self-efficacy over the two time points, which is to be expected as they progressed through their studies. However, when comparing the engaged and non-engaged groups, those who engaged with ECAs reported higher self-efficacy at both points. We were unable to draw conclusions regarding causation from the results. We cannot be sure if engagement in ECAs supports the development of student self-efficacy or if those with higher student self-efficacy are more likely to be engaged with ECAs. For example, we found evidence of a small number of participants who were engaged with several ECAs and reported very high levels of student self-efficacy. Bringing together evidence from previous studies, it may be that those students who are already assured in their academic ability are the most likely to be comfortable with introducing additional responsibilities into their student experience. Furthermore, the authors have previously explored students’ conceptions of ECAs and found that worries about negative impacts on studies were one of the reported barriers to engagement.

Problematising paid work

The inclusion of paid work as a recognised ECA was important to this study for a number of reasons. Our previous research demonstrated that students tend to trivialise their paid work experience in the context of their graduate ambitions and the potential for skill development. There are also social justice implications which merit their inclusion, as most students from lower socio-economic backgrounds may find it necessary to undertake paid work to fund living expenses.

The results of our study strengthen the evidence that students undervalue paid work experiences. First, there were two questions on the survey which pertained to paid work. One question asked how many hours respondents engaged in paid work, and the second asked respondents to indicate whether they were involved with ECAs. Seventy-five respondents in total answered that they were engaged with paid work but did not subsequently give an affirmative response to the question of ECA engagement, even though paid work was explicitly included on the list of example ECAs on the survey. This gives a clear indication of respondents’ attitudes to their paid work experiences (and perhaps an insight into how closely respondents read survey questions!).

Second, part-time work participation had no impact on student self-efficacy overall, or on any of the domains we measured, including external reach. As a result of this, we can assert that respondents did not perceive the domains of their paid work activities to be sufficiently similar to their student tasks to have an impact on their reported self-efficacy. Some of the external reach questions included, ‘I would feel confident arranging to meet a professional’ and ‘I would feel confident applying to a new opportunity’, but the results demonstrate that respondents did not feel that their paid work experiences prepared them sufficiently for external reach tasks.

Implications

Our research demonstrates the importance of student self-efficacy to the wider student experience. Regardless of whether engagement with ECAs results in, or relies on, high student self-efficacy, we recommend that universities explore ways within which they can explicitly support students to develop their student self-efficacy to take advantage of the range of benefits to the student experience. Furthermore, we believe that the topic of paid work warrants further exploration. It is our intention to undertake an additional study to understand how universities might support students to make the connections between paid work experiences and their personal and professional development.

Teri-Lisa Griffiths is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology. As a former careers adviser, her teaching is focused on the development of employability and academic skills. Her research interests are centred on the student experience and professional development.

 Jill Dickinson is a Senior Lecturer in Law and Senior Fellow of Advance HE. After spending 10 years working as a solicitor in private practice, Jill moved into academia. Alongside various Course and Research Leadership roles, she has collaborated with both internal and external partners to develop student employability initiatives.

Catherine J. Day is Principal Lecturer in Psychology. She is departmental lead for student experience, engagement and employability. Her teaching portfolio includes personality and psychometrics at undergraduate level and individual differences at postgraduate. Her research interests focus on individual differences and personality, and student well-being. She is a qualified personality and ability Test User registered by the British Psychology Society.


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How do we teach international students in the UK?

by Sylvie Lomer and Jenna Mittelmeier

This has been the guiding question for our current SRHE-funded research project. We are looking at how pedagogies and practices have been developed or shaped within the context of changing student demographics across the UK higher education sector. We have conducted 40 out of the 50 planned interviews and have really appreciated academics’ time and enthusiasm during a completely unprecedented semester. Our data collection and analysis continue but we wanted to communicate early findings and the types of language used by participants to communicate their pedagogy.

Many of our participants taught predominantly, or talked mainly about, postgraduate teaching, where students’ professional or life experience was frequently highlighted as important. The limitation with our participant sampling so far is an overrepresentation of applied disciplines (education, business, health-related, etc) and an underrepresentation of ‘pure’ disciplines (physics, maths, philosophy, etc) (Biglan, 1973). It’s quite possible that this represents a teaching approach that’s dominant in certain disciplines and not others.

Teaching approaches

Most participants represented their teaching in strikingly similar ways. Through careful reflection on the key information that needs to be ‘delivered or conveyed’, lecturers sought to maximise the amount of class time spent on ‘real learning’, which was understood to happen primarily in social or group settings. There appears to be consensus across the disciplines, institutions, and geographic locations of participants that an active and social approach to learning is optimal.

We anticipated variation across disciplines and contexts in the pedagogical approaches adopted by lecturers working with international students, but most participants have described largely similar approaches to managing their physical classrooms in pre-COVID times. These are commonly characterised by:

  • Chunking talking time and lectures into ‘gobbets’ of 15-20 minutes
  • Following up with small group activities (eg discussions or concrete tasks)
  • Concluding with plenary or whole group feedback

Sometimes this pattern was repeated during longer teaching sessions. Pedagogies were also mediated in different ways: through technology; with the help of teaching assistants; or in collaboration with a range of campus services. Yet, the core of how most participants represented their teaching has shown striking similarity, with reflection on the importance of social or group settings.

Participants reported challenges in implementing their approaches, particularly given that massification and growing class sizes have largely coincided with international student recruitment. Infrastructure, such as lecture theatres with fixed seating, was also commonly criticized as a limitation to pedagogy. Adaptations to online or hybrid classrooms during Covid-19 included ‘flipped’ approaches where readings or recordings were available initially online, with ‘live’ sessions designed to be solely interactive.

Representations of international students

We explored how the presence of international students influences the micro and macro practices of lecturer; in that respect, how we define ‘international students’ has been a prominent angle of questioning. Most participants defaulted to using the term as adopted in the press and public policy – non-EU degree level students. However, they also highlighted other groups of students who may also be subsumed by the international label – EU students, short-term students on exchanges or top-up programmes, and students classified as British by residency but who have been primarily educated overseas. These nuances matter, because, as participants highlight, the key point is not what students’ nationality is, but what their previous educational experiences are.

Challenges around ‘cultures of deference’ to the authority of teachers and texts were highlighted, as well as individual confidence and skills to participate orally in discussions. While some participants referred to common stereotypes of, for example, ‘silent’ Chinese students, others were quick to challenge deficit-based assumptions. The latter tended to describe the perceived benefits of having international students across cohorts and unpack the diversity of experiences that underlie such stereotyping. Diversity, in this regard, was often described as a ‘learning resource’ (Harrison, 2018), whereby international students were assumed to support classroom learning environments by sharing knowledge and experiences from their country or culture.

An alternative consideration noted by a smaller number of participants is that students should not be seen as embodiments of some abstracted form of national culture (Lomer, 2017), but rather through recognising that people are different and know different things. Some participants criticised the  binary distinction – created by fee and visa restrictions – between ‘home’ and ‘overseas’ students, given that factors which affect learning are more likely to be a culmination of previous educational experience, language, and confidence – of which none fall neatly between political borders. In that regard, participants highlighted the importance of ‘good teaching’ and a desire to develop an inclusive ‘ethos’ which works for all students.

We asked participants what they feel makes a good teacher, and were surprised to see relatively similar responses between participants, regardless of their career stage or teaching contexts. Their responses emphasised empathy, reflexivity, humility, curiosity, disciplinary passion, and the capacity to value difference. However, there was less reflection about how key learning outcomes might be underpinned by Eurocentric assumptions about education or students’ behaviours, or how things like critical thinking or academic integrity may be culturally shaped.

Reflections on professional identity

A final consideration for this project is how lecturers’ professional identities are shaped by their work with international students. Participants reflected on the loneliness of being ‘the pedagogy person’ or ‘the internationalisation person’ in departments or schools. In such contexts, some told stories about past and current colleagues or other academics in their networks who voiced explicitly racist views about international students. Most suggested these were now outliers and that the dominant discourse has changed towards a more positive view of international students.

Language used by academics when communicating the implementation of active and social learning approaches with international students positions the academic as in control and the (international) student as subaltern. For example, many participants spoke in terms of ‘being strict’, ‘setting expectations’, ‘forcing them to speak’. This was often explained with reference to meeting key learning outcomes or developing professional skills, but sits in contrast with the more emancipatory discourses often associated with student-centred approaches to teaching.

Earlier career academics have only ever taught in a highly internationalised sector, while those with a longer professional experience reflected on the change they had seen during their career. For most, internationalisation was reflected as a fact of contemporary academic life; some commented that they hadn’t thought about the particularities of teaching international students before their interview with us. For some, this was a characteristic of the discipline, particularly those in areas like business and international development; they positioned their subjects as inherently international, with assumptions that internationalised teaching followed ‘naturally’.

Get involved

The responses so far have been encouraging and suggest that, across UK institutions, academics are dedicated to: developing pedagogies that value diversity on multiple axes; working with international students; and valuing the knowledge and perspectives that an international student group can co-create.

We are still collecting data and would love to hear from anyone who teaches international students in any UK HEI, but particularly if you:

  • Teach in a STEM or Arts subject
  • Teach in Wales or Northern Ireland
  • Disagree with or don’t recognise the account above or have a different viewpoint.

All responses are strictly confidential, although participants will be invited to participate in a webinar at the end of the project.

We are working on building up a repository of case studies about teaching innovations with international students, hosted here, and welcome submissions from all (even if you do not wish to participate in an interview). Contact sylvie.lomer@manchester.ac.uk or jenna.mittelmeier@manchester.ac.uk for more information.

SRHE member Sylvie Lomer is Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her previous research focused on policies on international students in the UK, and now focuses more broadly on internationalisation in policy and practice in higher education, with a critical approach to pedogogy and policy enactment.

SRHE member Jenna Mittelmeier is Lecturer in International Education at the University of Manchester, in the Manchester Institute of Education (MIE). Her research expertise focus broadly on the internationalisation of higher education,  taking a critical perspective on issues of power, privilege, and ethics in international higher education.

Our thanks to Parise Carmichael-Murphy for reviewing the blog before it was submitted.

References

Biglan, Anthony (1973) ‘The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas’, Journal of Applied Psychology 57(3): 195

Harrison, N (2015) ‘Practice, problems and power in ‘internationalisation at home’: Critical reflections on recent research evidence’, Teaching in Higher Education, 20(4), 412-430


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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.


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Troubling transitions: re-thinking dominant narratives surrounding students’ educational transitions

by Karen Gravett

This blog draws on recent research into educational transitions within higher education. Student transitions are a central part of higher education policy and practice internationally. However it is striking that much of the work within this important area is underpinned by unquestioned assumptions surrounding what transition as a concept might mean. Too often understandings of transition defer to narratives that reinforce stereotypic and limited understandings of students’ experiences of life and learning.

In recent years, student satisfaction and successful outcomes for students have become key institutional priorities, and narratives surrounding transition can be seen to employ a number of recurring ideas in order to explain and regulate students’ outcomes. These include the navigation of distinct stages: induction; ‘welcome’ week; the ‘first year experience’, as well as conceptions of transition as a structured process, or a linear pathway, to be smoothed and bridged. Words matter. These narratives have implications for how students’ learner identities are constructed, as well as for how students are interpellated into discourse. Recurring tropes of bridges and gaps reinforce the implication of a personal deficit within the student, a ‘gap’ to be ‘bridged’ that exists from the very outset of a student’s experience at university. These metaphors are also underpinned by the assumption that individuals should adapt to their university environment.

Such narratives also ignore the multiplicity and diversity of individuals’ lived experiences. Depicting students’ experiences as uniform is particularly problematic given the reality of today’s diverse student populations and differing individual circumstances. Pathway metaphors also support a view that upholds individualised discourses of aspiration and resilience, and yet recent events remind us of how quickly trajectories can become unsettled, how easily linear pathways can be disrupted, through no fault of a student’s own. Within the narratives surrounding student transition, then, an intense focus on fixed time frames and ‘progressive’ outcomes can be seen to construct limiting timescapes of higher education and such fixed conceptions can be problematic for students who may for a variety of reasons need to ‘drop out’ or change direction.

Overall, the need for more nuanced understandings of students’ experiences into and through higher education has been brought into sharp focus recently with the unprecedented disruption to life and learning as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Understanding difference becomes even more important as we begin to see how different learning experiences may be for different students – those with space to work at home, those with a stable home, those with access to computers, printers, broadband connections, those without ill-health or caring responsibilities. And other new questions arise: is it still appropriate to speak in terms of rites of passage, linear pathways and first year experiences? What does transition into higher education now mean given that are students are currently transitioning to online study and facing unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change? Perhaps it is time instead to consider how we can we foster greater consideration of the granularity of students’ experiences, considering that beneath institutional discourses there may lie a more nuanced picture: one where students’ experiences can be understood as diverse, messy, and rhizomatic.

Recent empirical research with staff and students also suggested the diverse, fluid and ongoing nature of students’ transitions at university as depicted in these students’ comments:

You’re constantly changing, you’re constantly meeting new people. (Laura, second interview)

I was already quite independent when I came to Uni … because my mum, she’s disabled, so I already do a lot of stuff at home for my brother. (Maria, first interview)

It doesn’t feel like I’m living the same experience as they would, even though we go to the same uni. (Mena, first interview)

In these studies, our data portrayed tensions between the stories, narratives and linear timescapes that surround traditional conceptualisations of student transition, and the fine-grained, messy, changing, becomings of students’ lived experiences. The implications of such a reconceptualisation thus offers new potential for a rethinking of approaches to theorising and doing transition, as well as raising new questions regarding our understanding of students’ experiences. A new question for institutions now exists: in how to reconcile the fluidity and rhizomatic experiences of students with the conventional linear and modular institutional approaches to the acquisition of knowledge that may be driven by neoliberal agendas of efficiency and managerialism.

Indeed, to date such traditional conceptions of transition have encouraged a focus on short term, practical, strategies to promote success, for example pre-entry, induction and welcome week initiatives. Perhaps instead we might wish to consider individuals’ lived temporal rhythms, the ongoing nature of learning and development within higher education, and the ongoing nature of transition itself. What would a rethinking of transitions as something necessarily troublesome, as rhizomatic, and as part of an individual’s ongoing series of becomings offer? Key implications will be a need for institutions to offer support beyond the initial stage conventionally termed transition, as well as to seek to depart from approaches that construct students as experiencing a homogeneous ‘student experience’, or as experiencing a transition period that should necessarily be managed, smoothed and eased at all. Rather, considering how we can share an understanding of the inevitable challenges and difficulties inherent within learning, and the ongoing nature of change and becoming may be more useful, particularly in our troubling times where we might conclude we are now always experiencing a period of transition, or becoming.

This blog post is based on research recently published in Studies in Higher Education and Higher Education Research and Development. Karen Gravett is Lecturer in Higher Education at the University of Surrey. She is an Associate Editor of the journal Higher Education Research and Development, a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a co-convenor of the Society for Research in Higher Education Learning, Teaching and Assessment network.