srhe

The Society for Research into Higher Education


Leave a comment

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.


Leave a comment

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.

MaryStuart


Leave a comment

Looking back to look forward at the student experience

By Mary Stuart

Attempting a review of work on the student experience over the last 50 years is daunting. The concept of the ‘student experience’ is so defuse and covers so many areas  that any review would be partial. However I will attempt to discuss what themes I believe to be important as they have emerged in research on the student experience in HE along with what questions have been asked by researchers of these themes and how these themes and questions relate to the rapidly, it seems looking back, changing higher education landscape.

I wish to place this discussion in the context of what I believe are the two overarching policy narratives which have shaped higher education since 1965 which have therefore driven the research and impact agendas for the student experience. The relationship between policy and research is complex, sometimes with research questions developing because of new policies and sometimes with research influencing new policy.  However all research on the student experience can be seen as deriving from the processes of the Massification and Marketisation of higher education, the two meta-narratives for HE in the last 50 years.  I will begin with Massification.

The concept of Massification in HE comes from Trow (1970) Continue reading

Camille Kandiko


Leave a comment

International research on the student experience: Power, methodologies and translation

By Camille Kandiko Howson

The SRHE Student Experience Network featured a discussion at the 2014 SRHE Conference exploring international dimensions of student experience research. We featured three international speakers to provide examples of topics and challenges faced when conducting international and comparative research:

  • Madeleine Kapinga Mutatayi , from Congo DRC, Kinshasa, Phd student Department of Educational Sciences Center for Instructional Psychology and Technology at KU Leuven, Belgium
  • Dr Johanna Annala, Senior Lecturer, School of Education, University of Tampere, Finland
  • Dr Rebecca Schendel, Lecturer, Institute of Education, UCL, UK

The event was chaired by Student Experience Network co-convenor Camille Kandiko Howson with co-convenor Matthew Cheeseman in spiritu.

The Student Experience is growing in importance around the world (Barber 2013), whilst at the same time decreasing in common understanding, shared definitions and research coherence. This may be due to variety of foci of research into the student experience, including:

  • Curricular (learning gains, assessments, breadth and depth) (Douglass et al 2012; Crosling et al 2008)
  • Co-curricular (additional opportunities, such as community engagement, study abroad, and industry collaboration and employability) (Mourshed et al 2012)
  • Extra-curricular (accommodation, lifestyle, sports, societies, politics) (Thomas 2012; UNITE 2014)

These levels are then further compounded by levels of analysis, including individual, group (such as minority groups and international students), institutional (on topics such as governance, engagement and satisfaction), and inter/national (such as access, progression, labour market and rankings). Following the paradox of globalisation, and as countries around the world position higher education in society (such as dropping tuition fees in Germany and dramatically increasing them in the UK), what key issues about the student experience are of relevance across higher education research, beyond national politics and policies?

Two questions were used to stimulate topics for discussion:

  •  What research questions are not being asked about the student experience?
  • What research and evidence could promote productive, effective educational models of higher education?

Across national contexts, the importance of measuring and researching learning strongly emerged. Several delegates raised troublesome issues when Western views of educational research and practice were used in other contexts. This encompassed staff and student perceptions of the learning environment and their relationship to each other, in terms of culturally-bound classroom and research practices. This highlighted power issues between staff and students, particularly the notion of students publically challenging or critiquing staff, even in confidential research settings. A fundamental question arose about different national and cultural interpretations of the concept of student voice, and the need for more comparative work about what student voice means in practice in different political contexts, inside and outside of the university setting.

The challenges of borrowing, or imposing, Western views were also discussed in relation to methodologies, particularly the use of large-scale surveys. The US-based National Survey of Student Engagement offered both the opportunity for comparative research of student engagement and student learning using a validated tool but researchers noted that many of the underlying theories are culturally-bound, such as ‘ideal’ forms of engagement between staff and students and notions of democratic participation, particularly in non-Democratic settings. From East Asia to Africa to the Middle East, different perspectives and modes of interaction were discussed. Related methodological issues were challenges in translating English-based research resources into other languages and cultural settings.

A useful framework picked up from conference presentations was that of using ‘powerful knowledge’ and ‘powerful understanding’ when crossing borders, using international methods and tools and in partnering with colleagues.

This seminar concluded with a desire to share opportunities for collaboration and participation in exploring these areas of research. This entry is a start to this endeavour, welcoming comments and proposals for projects that could carried out in multiple national contexts and engage the international higher education research community. So please comment, share and get in touch with one another!

Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is a research fellow at King’s College London and co-editor of The Global Student Experience: An International and Comparative Analysis

Barber, M., Donnelly, K., and Rizvi, S. (2013) An Avalanche is coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead, London: Institute for Public Policy Research

Crosling, G., Thomas, L. and Heaney, M. (2008) Improving Student Retention in Higher Education- The role of teaching and learning, London: Routledge

Douglass, J. A., Thomson, G., & Zhao, C. M. (2012). The learning outcomes race: the value of self-reported gains in large research universities. Higher Education, 64(3), 317-335.

Staddon, E., & Standish, P. (2012). Improving the student experience. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 46(4), 631–648.

Mourshed, M., Farrell, D. And Barton, D. (2012) Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works, Washington, DC: McKinsey Center for Government

Thomas, L. (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: a summary of findings and recommendations from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme, London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation

UNITE (2014) Living and Learning in 2034- A higher education futures project, University Alliance and UNITE.