Widening Participation and Student Support
Supporting Students to Improve Retention
The Attraction, Support and Retention Project
Connexions: a bridge for Widening Participation
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Sheila Aynsley Smith
Widening Participation and Student Support
The context in which higher education institutions are operating is changing rapidly and is fraught with paradox. The Government is redefining and justifying its targets and higher education institutions are both seeking to achieve targets and cope with the implications of a changing student market and intake. The Government remains committed to a target of 50% of young people benefiting from higher education by the age of 30, by 2010. Interpretation of figures varies, but the most recent figures suggest that the current participation rate of 18 - 30 year olds is 41% across the UK. There are clear messages that this increase in participation should be achieved through currently under-represented groups and in particular, those who are 'socially disadvantaged'. As Margaret Hodge, Life-long Learning and Higher Education Minister expressed in the Times Higher Education Supplement (11 Jan 2002) 'we need more young people from poorer backgrounds'.
At Manchester Metropolitan University, we have a long tradition of recruiting and supporting students from a diverse range of backgrounds. However, this diversity has been more manifest in some types of courses than others and many full-time undergraduate degrees still recruit a high percentage of 18 year olds from middle class backgrounds, with two A levels. There are signs that this pattern is altering and most programmes now have a growing proportion of students from the region, from ethnic minority backgrounds, mature women and students with disabilities and other learning needs. Continuing pressures to achieve recruitment targets have an inevitable influence on admissions criteria and many students are inadequately prepared for the demands of higher education. At MMU, we have a well established track record of supporting students and this has been endorsed by successive QAA Subject Review outcomes, where the support provided through partnership between the academic department and central services has resulted in the top score of four for the core aspect of Student Support and Guidance in 12 out of 14 QAA Subject Reviews (HEFCE Quality Assessment and QAA Subject Review, 2002).
In Government, terms 'student support' generally applies to financial provision. Although a number of schemes have been introduced, such as the Excellence Challenge and opportunity bursaries, there is now acknowledgement that existing systems of student finance are proving a disincentive both to recruitment and retention and the DFES has initiated a review of student funding. These are issues which are beyond our immediate control and in this context, I will look at 'student support' in terms of the learning experience.
Factors Influencing the Student Experience
The provision of higher education is influenced by a number of factors, with political, economic and social origins. One of the main emphases of the Dearing Report (1997) was on the purpose of higher education. This stressed the preparation of graduates for the world of work, the value of life-long learning and the contribution of higher education to the economy. The increasingly vocational nature of higher education has to be set against the wider economic contexts; we are operating in a global environment, influencing all aspects of provision. At the same time, the likelihood of world recession will have an effect on graduate recruitment. The inevitable dominance of information and communication technology (ICT) is increasingly influencing teaching and learning styles and determining skills which graduates must acquire.
Higher education is also influenced by changing social and attitudinal paradigms. Students are in a buyers' market, and allied to the sense that they purchase their education, they expect a responsive and client focused service. They are aware of their rights and prepared to exercise them (the 'litigious society'). This is underpinned by recent legislation, including the Data Protection Act 1998, the Human Rights Act 1998, the SEN and Disability Act 2001, the amendment to the Race Relations Act 2000.
Students are entering higher education from an increasingly wide range of backgrounds with a range of entry qualifications and those entering directly from further education may expect some consistency and continuity in guidance strategies. The inevitability of student debt affects many aspects of provision and delivery. Reluctance to enter into debt militates against Government's Widening Participation Strategies, as those from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged background struggle against cultural or religious resistance. Financial factors affect student choices as more elect to study near to home and have a very different expectation of the student experience from earlier generations. At least two thirds of students now work during term-time to support their studies and this has an inevitable effect on their learning patterns. It also puts pressure on the institutions to provide a more flexible learning environment.
One of the main tensions for universities is the competing pressure between increased student numbers and the need for individualised learning, which students can tailor to their own situation 'rather than fitting a standard model. based on young, professionally inexperienced, full-time students living on the campus' (Collis and Moonen 2001). As these pressures increase, many students will require a flexible learning environment, which may be both demand led and negotiated, embracing such strategies as distance learning, web-based delivery and a radical review of programme design, delivery and modes of attendance. Concurrently, they require accessible support in managing the learning process.
As students' (as customers) attitudes to the learning experience change, their expectations of its outcomes are increasing. To meet these expectations, they require focused and accurate careers guidance and will expect institutions to provide relevant skills training and development.
Many of the challenges facing universities appear to be politically driven; we have targets for recruitment, we are subject to an increasing battery of performance indicators and league tables; the revised quality assurance process is likely to put increased emphasis on student feedback and analysis. However, at the chalk face, our priority is the recruitment of students who have the motivation and potential to complete their programme of study and for this to be of benefit in their future lives and careers. The relevance and importance of accurate and timely advice, support and guidance is crucial, throughout the journey through higher education.
Towards a comprehensive support strategy
Early in 2001, I set up a student support group, under the aegis of the Recruitment Support Strategy Steering Group, which was chaired by the Director of External Relations. Within the context of deriving a recruitment support strategy 'which generates an overall increase in the proportion of conversions to reach target numbers and grades' the sub-group looked at all aspects of student support, from pre-entry to graduation. The group comprised representatives from each of the faculties, bringing widely different experiences in terms of types and size of programme, nature of student intake academic/vocational balance, physical location and so on. The group was also aware of current projects including the attraction support and retention project in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Science (see the article by Philip Lloyd and Louise Willmot) and the foundation stage initiative (see the article by Karen Moore in this issue). Discussion and experience underlined the interrelated nature of all stages of the process. Therefore, for the University to succeed in recruiting to target, retaining its students and enabling a future success, there are interrelationships between pre-entry strategies, on-course support, and careers guidance and management. The effectiveness of such strategies is reflected in the University's reputation, in the region, through its graduates and through published data and performance indicators.
There are many examples of good practice across the University, and many are transferable. Effective student support is not the province of one particular group of staff or department within the University; it is a shared commitment which relies on good working relationships and effective communication.
Drawing on some of the issues generated by the group, student support can be considered both as a sequential process and in terms of categories of students.
A Sequential Process
It is only possible to give a brief outline of some of the strategies necessary to underpin a positive student experience and to indicate current approaches and services. Differences between programmes, their methods and timing of recruitment and the nature of the student intake, precludes generalisation. It is hoped, in time, to develop a good practice guide which could elaborate on some of the suggestions outlined here.
The value of making the right choice is incontrovertible. It is essential that applicants have access to informed pre-entry advice and guidance, in order to avoid subsequent disappointment or disillusion with course content - a frequent reason for withdrawal (Connor, Pearson et al, 2001). There are significant differences in scale and approach between the prolonged process of application through the standard UCAS programme and the decisions and choices made during the Clearing period. Notwithstanding, potential applicants should have access to accurate information about the content and demands of programmes of study, about career implications and choices, about the wider opportunities (social, personal) offered by the University and about choices and flexibility. We need to look at more accessible guidance strategies, strengthening our links with feeder institutions (recognising that in many areas these are already strong) and encouraging a sense of value and interest in potential applicants.
The Application Process
Considerable work is being put into analysing factors around applicant choices, conversion of offers to acceptances and so on across the University. For many applicants, who fulfil the criteria of widening participation, this University will be their preferred choice, reflecting programme and geographic priorities. For such applicants, overriding issues will be confidence and commitment. It is important therefore, that as far as possible, we establish and maintain personal contact with individual applicants, to sustain their interest and to help them think through the implications of engaging on a programme of study. There are many innovative approaches; some departments send Christmas cards and good luck cards before examinations; they also engage in cold calling, using student volunteers. Certainly, ongoing contact both helps in the conversion of offers to acceptances and may reduce lack of take-up by making the applicant feel valued.
It is at this stage we in Student Services feel that there is scope for structured interaction between the University and those who have accepted offers. Students from traditionally underrepresented groups could benefit significantly from pre-entry support, but some provision might also be available to more traditional entrants, but particularly those who have taken a gap year or been out of study for some time. Whilst there are examples across the University of good practice, through summer schools and other pre-entry courses, we do not routinely provide opportunities for students to become familiar with the demands of higher education or to have prior exposure to learning and teaching processes. Such support can be targeted at individual groups of students, or on a programme basis and can be available in different modes. The provision of effective pre-entry support would, we believe, help both in the conversion of offers to places and in avoiding some of the student withdrawal which occurs in the first year of the programme.
We currently put considerable effort into student induction programmes, but do not always evaluate their effectiveness. Induction programmes tend to be geared towards the characteristics of the majority, as sheer volume of numbers militates against differentiation. Some programmes have introduced schemes such as mentoring or buddying, which facilitate the acclimatisation process. Again, practices vary between programmes and reflect departmental ethos and resources. It is important that, from the outset, students feel valued and secure, and have access to support, be it academic, personal or financial. It is also important that during the early stages of students' association with us, we maintain their interest and enthusiasm.
This is an area in which we already have considerable expertise within the University, but within which there is much more to be achieved. It is here that the tension between increased student numbers and relatively static resources is most manifest. The first point of contact for all students is usually their Personal Tutor and the Departmental Office. Considerable academic and pastoral support is provided at local level and this is complemented by the support which we can offer through Student Services. In particular, the Learning Support Unit is increasingly working with programme teams to support learner needs, whilst maintaining provision to support students on an individual basis and through the provision of workshops and drop-in sessions. The Counselling Service is available to support students who experience personal distress or wish to talk through issues in confidence. Counsellors are also working increasingly with programme teams. The Careers Service has developed a number of links with individual programmes to integrate career management skills into the student programme at an early stage.
There are a number of areas in which more effective and timely support could be provided, by more accessible financial advice, facilitation of part-time employment and increasing provision of flexible modes of study. Such strategies require a holistic approach to the learning experience and some changes in culture and attitudes.
Graduation and Beyond
The University's graduates are among its best ambassadors and advertisements. Although we have a major commitment to facilitating students' entry to the workplace (and again, this is a shared responsibility between academic departments and the Careers Service) there are considerable additional benefits to be obtained from maintaining and developing longer-term contact with our graduates. Post-course contact and involvement in University activities engender a range of benefits and may help to develop business, professional and commercial links of value to future generations of students. Sustained contact with our graduates also provides the opportunity to obtain effective labour market intelligence and informed understanding of longer-term graduate destinations. In the context of life-long learning, an individual's relationship with the institution may last over several decades. The Harris Report (2001) recommends that all students should be able to use the Careers Service at the University at which they studied for at least two years after they have left. This is a service which we would wish to promote and encourage.
There are many areas within the University where good practices have been developed, the challenge, within the Widening Participation Strategy, is to harness such good practice and to provide integrated, informed and assured support.
Students are not homogeneous and the characteristics of the student body vary considerably between institutions. Government policies are encouraging diversification across the sector; for instance, the Raising Aspirations funding stream is designed to encourage universities with less than 80% intake from the state sector to increase that proportion. Different categories of students, however, require different types of support.
International students are increasingly in a buyers' market, as universities seek to stimulate income streams. With a possible decline in entry standards, there is an increased need for English language and study skills support. Students expect high standards of accommodation, technology, equipment - and cultural understanding and support. They will increasingly look for vocational guidance, which has traditionally been beyond the remit of Careers Services.
Postgraduate and research students are likely to be carrying substantial debt. They need opportunities to work and support their studies and therefore require a highly flexible approach to learning and open access to facilities. Those following postgraduate, professional course, have to balance the demands of their own jobs and may look for more work-based opportunities and accreditation. Many may have uncertain career prospects and need informed guidance.
Students from ethnic minorities may have conflicting cultural or religious traditions and pressures. It is important that all staff have an understanding of cultural diversity and can recognise some of the tensions faced by students.
Mature Students have been directly affected by changing policies on student finance. Whilst the Government is trying to address these through its Funding Review, the current approach is piecemeal and there are inconsistencies between the benefits and student support systems, which must be addressed if mature entrants are to be encouraged. They are often unfamiliar with IT and also have difficulty in adjusting to study; in an environment of individualised study, they may need more personalised support. They will benefit from flexible study patterns to enable them to reconcile life and work pressures. Recent student support initiatives may diminish the need for campus-based childcare, but a facilitative approach is increasingly necessary. Effective careers guidance - both pre-entry and on-programme will help mature students in determining and achieving aspirations. In developing facilities - social, recreation - we should reflect the diversity of the student body and provide alternatives to the typical undergraduate bar and programme of activities.
Numbers of students with disabilities and other learning needs are increasing. Whilst institutions are now required, by the SEN and Disability Act 2001, to accommodate those with disabilities, there remains a tension between the principle of inclusiveness and legislative requirements. It is essential that students with disabilities have access to informed pre-entry guidance. Advance identification of study needs is fundamental in enabling academic orientation and success.
The concept of social inclusion creates some tensions for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many students require more targeted support in all the areas I have identified above and systems which ensure that particular needs are identified at an early stage.
Finally, amongst the body of traditional entrants, there is increasing exercise of 'gap year'. Deferred entry students may need particular consideration, for instance, academic reorientation and residential accommodation. It is also important to maintain contact during the gap year.
Across all these categories, there are growing numbers experiencing mental health difficulties - which may be short or long term. This is a sensitive area, and we need to provide confidential and informed support which respects the rights of individuals, the student and staff body and to maintain academic standards.
Implications for the University
Across the institution, programme teams are endeavouring to cope with the conflicting imperatives of student numbers and the need for more individualised learning and targeted support. Faculties, the Learning and Teaching Unit and Student Services are all engaged in projects around the widening participation agenda and seek to utilise funding opportunities. Examples include the on-line mentoring project for ethnic minority students in the Careers Service, the Headstart project, for deaf and hard of hearing students in which the Learning Support Unit is a partner, the DEMOS Inter-institutional Project which is developing on-line staff development materials to support students with disabilities, the Widening Participation (Foundation Stage) Project and initiatives generated by the North West Post 16 Network. However there is much more which could be achieved. For example, we would like to develop more pre-entry advice, guidance and support to ensure that applicants make the right choice. We would also wish to work with tutors in supporting individual students, both in their learning needs and developing their key skills and career aspirations. We are aware that there are many students within the University who could benefit from the services which we offer but are either unaware of them or reluctant to seek support.
The task ahead is challenging. There are already many examples of good practice in supporting students with an increasing array of learning needs. Further progress can be made through effective collaboration between those in departments and central services, informed referral and collaboration in joint projects and bids for funding. There are real lessons to be learned from the experience of individual students and informed feedback is essential to this process. We should be proud of our reputation as a student centred institution. However we need to work collaboratively to address changing student needs and to ensure their experience from pre-entry to post-graduation is positive and enriching.
B.Collis and J.Moonen (2001) Flexible Learning in a Digital World, London, Kogan Page.
H.Connor, R Pearson, E Pollard, C Tyers, and R Willison (2001) The Right Choice - a follow-up to 'Making the Right Choice'; London. Universities UK
Sir R Dearing (1997) Higher Education in the Learning Society: Report of the National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education, London, HMSO
DfEE 2001 Developing Modern Higher Education Careers Services, January: London (The Harris Report)
HEFCE Quality Assessment and QAA Subject Review, 2002: http://www.mmu.ac.uk/academic/asu/tqascore.html, visited 1 March 2002
The Times Higher Education Supplement, No 1520, 11 January 2002
Sheila Aynsley Smith, Head of Student Services