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The Attraction, Support and Retention Project
Connexions: a bridge for Widening Participation
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Visit days: do they really encourage students to choose us?
Most UK universities and colleges of higher education run a programme of visit days for applicants, typically on Wednesday afternoons from November through to April or May. The purpose of the day may not be explicitly stated, but invitation letters generally imply that attendance is desirable. For those students who will be first generation entrants to university, visit days may have a crucial role to play in convincing them (and their parents) that university is a place where they can happily and profitably spend three years of their life.
The standard format seems to include a visit to the relevant department, talks by one or more of the course team and a chance to meet up with some current students, probably whilst taking in a tour of the campus. The time and effort involved in putting on such an extensive programme of visits should not be underestimated - within the Education Liaison office at MMU approximately 20-25% of our time during the spring term is spent on visit day planning and attendance. Other central divisions and academic departments invest comparable time and effort. This level of investment in the visit day is typical of every university I have worked in.
Given this, it is perhaps surprising that staff rarely question the value of visit days. Indeed, as I have moved around the university sector one of the comments I have heard most frequently is "If we can get students to come to a visit day - we always get them on to the course!" Every university seems to believe this, but they can't all be right as students only enrol at one university, however many visit days they have attended. While it is generally true that visit day attendees are more likely to become students than non-attendees, it is also the case that those students who are already very interested in a particular institution are the ones who make the effort to visit. It's possible that attending the visit day may not, in itself, play any major role in converting students but may simply be telling us which of our students have already decided to accept our offer. It is even possible that some students are lost to us because their visit day experience was not positive. For me this is a particular area of concern, especially when it is evident that the student and his or her parents have little or no previous knowledge of higher education and are therefore less likely to question the experience they have had. Recently, a parent visiting MMU handed me a feedback sheet that rated all aspects of the visit day positively, but then admitted in conversation that she had been extremely bored during the two-hour departmental session, which focused on course content and was 'over her head'. She was not prepared to write this on her feedback sheet.
In an ideal world, of course, every visitor (including parents and other guests) would have a totally positive experience, which confirms or establishes that MMU will be his or her first choice institution. An additional spin-off would be the passing on of positive comments to friends at school or to other parents. How close do we come to achieving this?
Here at MMU the Education Liaison team have been collecting feedback from visitors since January. The data only reflects the views of those students who have had the opportunity to attend the centrally organised part of each visit day, which runs from 12 till 4 each Wednesday in the spring term. Some departments take advantage of this, others either choose not to or simply cannot fit it into their schedule because of distance from All Saints or the need to carry out time-consuming interviews. The data is always collected by means of a simple feedback sheet covering no more than 1 side of A4. Response rates vary, but typically around one third of the sheets are completed. Separate versions are provided for applicants and their parents/guardians and it appears to be the case that family groups complete both or neither.
So, what have we found? In general, ratings are very positive, with particularly high scores being awarded for the friendliness and helpfulness of student ambassadors and staff. The aspect of the visit day most often singled out as important is the tour of the campus, taking in the halls of residence. This is probably the least formal part of the day and the time when those who may feel slightly intimidated by the academic environment are most at ease. Student Ambassadors report that parents often use this time to ask questions about security in the halls, safety in general and the cost of being a student.
Written comments in response to 'open' questions on the feedback sheet often make it clear that our visitors are starting from a position of very limited knowledge, for example, "the first time I have been to a university - it was better than I thought". Comments about course content are not always so positive, with some visitors claiming that they still do not really know enough about the course. This is sometimes attributable to the fact that a talk on the course was not included in the programme, but is perhaps more likely to be the result of a mismatch between assumptions on the part of staff and understanding of the university sector by our applicants and their guests. Much of our terminology (modules, credits, degree classification, pre-requisites, etc.) is commonplace to those of us who work in the sector but potentially confusing to those who don't.
A recent, national survey of applicants to higher education has shown that students sometimes doubt our motives for holding visit days, with many reporting that the event turned out to be a 'sales pitch' with the aim of 'catching' the best students, and some complaining that the visit day was so similar to an open day they had previously attended that the trip was a waste of time.
In general, then, do visit days act to encourage progression to university or not? My own current research with applicants includes a 'diary study' in which groups of year 13 pupils are keeping a record of their contacts with universities they have applied to. Most of them will be 'first generation' students with little family experience of higher education. To date, their responses to visit days are far less positive than I had expected, with some students constantly revising their intended 'first choice' destination as they visit the universities on their list and find each one unsatisfactory. Their written comments in the 'diary' are often bland, but when I meet them in discussion groups it is clear that the enthusiasm with which they start the application process wanes quite quickly when they take a closer look at what universities really have to offer. This is surprising, because once students get to university the vast majority of them appear to be having a great time! Could it be that the tried and tested format for visit days simply doesn't work? About two thirds of visitors to MMU do not take up the opportunity to complete a feedback sheet - perhaps they have not enjoyed the experience but don't wish to say so? At the end of the current round of visit days we plan to do some follow up work with a randomly selected group of applicants, in order to try and put together a more accurate and inclusive picture of how our visitors rate these events. This will also help us to look at any differences between our 'first generation' applicants and those who come from families with a history of participation in higher education. Perhaps students (and families) with limited knowledge of higher education build up expectations that the university sector is currently failing to meet?
Susan McGrath, External Relations