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Gill Rice and Karen Duggan
Degrees of Uncertainty or TIPS for Success?
Oiling the wheel rather than reinventing it
Labour’s governmental policy on Widening Participation has led to a greater diversity of students entering higher education. Whilst some educationalists have argued that this has led to falling academic standards and a ‘dumbing down’ of academic rigour, others are increasingly recognising the need for change to meet the demand of students with shifting ‘typical’ student profiles.
TIPS (Transition, Induction and Progression Strategies) is a European Social Fund project based at Manchester Metropolitan University, which through adopting a Participatory Action Research approach, has explored the value of piloting innovative methods to support large numbers of diverse students. Targeting new students and responding to their structural and cultural needs as new students, this pedagogy encourages people to synergise life experiences with their personal goal framework by advising them to both draw upon and value personal experience as well as new knowledge about the many positions that they hold within academic systems.
The objective of this research was to capture and elucidate the processes which contribute to empowerment and well-being whilst providing a robust survival kit for students to avoid academic haemorrhage when progressing into and through higher education. The research put forward by TIPS, is just one example of how an institution is responding to current policy by evaluating the interplay that occurs when prioritising intervention and prevention through collaboration and consultation. The mission of this proactive approach was to collectively drive change agents towards culture shifts in organisational as well as societal change by supporting communities into and through systemic processes which may result in economic advantage and in turn genuinely could lead to a widening of participation in citizenship.
In doing this, TIPS explores as well as questions to what extent there is a need for multi-layered ‘change’ using proactive and responsive approaches when supporting diverse student communities within the arenas of student retention, achievement and progression?
“…We must widen participation, not simply increase it. Widening participation means increasing access to learning and providing opportunities for success and progression to a much wider cross-section of the population than now.”
It can be argued that Government policy is driving institutional agendas in the areas of increasing student numbers in higher education, widening diversity and improving retention (DfEE 2000). National policy on widening participation has meant that students once considered as a minority within higher education, such as ‘non-traditional’ and ‘access’ students, are increasingly becoming the norm (Macdonald and Stratta, 2001:250). This has led some to argue that increased participation has caused falling academic standards in higher education. Furthermore, increased participation has been linked to increases in student withdrawal (Thomas, 2002:426). As Thomas notes, ‘there is a tendency to attribute lower levels of completion to greater student diversity and a lack of ‘academic preparedness’ of these new student groups’ (2002:426).
Whilst on the one hand there are those who locate blame with the individual student, adopting a medical model approach, others argue that there is a collective responsibility for institutional change. As Woodrow notes, ‘While most institutions recognise that students from under-represented groups need to change to survive the HE environment, fewer are prepared to accept that institutions also need to change. Change to meet the learning needs of access entrants is still resisted on the grounds of defending academic standards’ (2002).
Macdonald and Stratta state that greater student diversity, ‘is increasingly recognised as having implications for learning and teaching policies (ILT, 1999) and for changes in the academic culture’ (2001:250). Thomas, drawing on the work of Bourdieu, argues that ‘institutional habitus’ plays a part in making students feel whether or not they fit in. If institutional habitus are inclusive and accepting of difference, celebrating and prizing diversity then this in turn will promote retention (2002:431). Thomas highlights staff attitudes and their relationships with students as an important means by which social and academic distance can be minimised enabling students to feel valued and sufficiently confident to seek guidance when they require it (2002: 439). Whilst Thomas focuses on the role of academic staff, those who work within the Student Support Services, may have a quasi-academic role and it can be argued that they play an important role in advising and supporting students and so promote a feeling of ‘fitting in’ and emotional as well as psychological wellbeing.
Yet, the nature of Student Support Services has often meant that students access support when they are experiencing problems and services are recognised as being more reactive rather than pro-active. It is increasingly being recognised that, ‘As the student population diversifies, it is clear that the work of Student Services is becoming more complex, requiring a greater variety of responses’ (Universities UK , 2002: 7). Therefore there is a need for support services within HE to make interventions which provide timely support within the ‘student lifecycle’ (HEFCE, circular 01/36). These interventions need to recognise the diversity of the student population and provide innovative approaches to student support. Whilst doing this staff, in light of Thomas’ assessment, need to adopt a reflexive approach, in order to both assess the support on offer and to examine their own practice in terms of promoting inclusivity.
Through a project funded by the European Social Fund at Manchester Metropolitan University , the ways in which students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds can be supported in their transition into higher education is being researched and developed. TIPS (Transition, Induction and Progression Strategies) is a project which has focussed on strategies to facilitate retention, progression and student wellbeing. TIPS has developed an innovative approach to student support through offering impartial pre-entry guidance to potential applicants to higher education in a number of formats and arenas. Further, students who decide to enrol at Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) are supported through the first year of their studies in a variety of ways. Support services at MMU are made up of small teams and can often find themselves in a reactive state as a result of supporting a pool of 33,000 students so TIPS can be seen to add value to the support services by supporting them where necessary in order to move student support units towards a more proactive state.
The TIPS project, utilising action research methodologies, sought to explore both the value of pre-entry guidance and the impact of additional on course support for those students who decide to enrol at MMU. Action research can be described as an approach which focuses on working with people to identify problems in practice, implement change and evaluate solutions (Reason and Rowan, 1981). It can be seen as a ‘way of generating knowledge about a social system while, at the same time, attempting to change it’ (Hart and Bond, 1995: 13).
The project was staffed by a team of three who were appointed in May 2003 and were involved in tracking students over the course of one academic year. The nature of the project has meant that support strategies could be adopted and analysed for their effectiveness and suitability. The fundamental principle has been to adopt a ‘Connexions’ methodology in supporting students which underlines a holistic approach to student support. A ‘Connexions’ model emphasises the need for advice and guidance which is both accessible when required with the ability to provide a critical link to other support services. Further, support is tailored in order to assist individuals to overcome barriers to success and facilitate empowerment ( www.connexions.gov.uk )
The central aim of this research was to explore the impact and interplay of organisational and cultural practices that operate within a complex multileveled widening participation educational change project.
Data was collected in many formats:
- Case Notes
- Practitioner field diaries/progress reports
- Practitioner feedback evaluation forms
- Student workshop feedback evaluation forms
- Mixed design questionnaires-overall service student evaluation
- Focus groups
A Theoretical Framework
Community Psychology is about the interdependence of individuals and their settings and systems at many levels including the ‘highest’ or macro-level. This level is concerned with social stratification, particularly stratification by socio-economic status but also by factors of gender, race, age and disability (House & Mortimer, 1990). Whatever level we are working at we should be alert to the influence of factors operating at higher and lower levels (Garbarino, 1982). Once the focus is upon understanding and changing an organisation, then Community Psychology is being practised and this is the first step in
‘Shoring up the moral foundations of our society’ (Etzioni,1995 :248). It is a division that, ‘focuses on community research and action and adopts the central idea that social systems and environmental influences are important foci for enhancing well being’ (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). It is also committed to empiricism and the scientist-practitioner model (Barlow, Hayes and Nelson, 1984). It adopts a theoretical framework which centres its focus on collective action as the vehicle to drive social change. Any change at this level may be seen as a valid contribution to the revolution of widening participation in higher education.
TIPS retention activity, focuses on using action research to explore the student lifecycle (HEFCE, 01/36 2001) for non-traditional local students in Manchester and South Cheshire at particular risk of ‘dropout’ or lack of success. A clear aim of this project was to empower vulnerable people who have little access to social power with knowledge about how to progress into and through university using an innovative approach to targeted student support. Target groups offered pre-entry support were those 2003 UCAS applicants who came from local Excellence Challenge (EC) institutions, those who applied to the University Foundation Year bridging scheme, UCAS applicants who came from any local Access course and students studying in 2003/04 in the same targeted EC institutions in preparation for 2004 entry. On course support was initially offered to those who applied to the University Foundation Year bridging scheme or any first year undergraduate programme at MMU but this extended to all new students at MMU.
TIPS has evolved innovative approaches for supporting students through the transition from post-16 education and during the first year of their academic studies in higher education. This has been achieved through collaboration with both internal and external partners, often drawing on the expertise of others to develop support and guidance. Further to this and perhaps more importantly, the aim has been to position the student at the centre of the process and respond to needs and concerns which they have highlighted. Through taking this approach the team have positioned themselves as ‘the learners’ rather than ‘the experts’ and have used insights gleaned from students to develop both written and web based materials as well as timely, appropriate pre-entry and on-course advice and guidance. Over the academic year this collaborative approach has informed practice and led the team to analyse the success of various strategies. This has been facilitated by not having to fit in to an existing institutional framework, but we were able to develop and refine a model taking into account a diverse student population and the community in which our institution is embedded.
TIPS Procedures – Work In Progress or Learning and Teaching In Action?
As the team were appointed late (5 months into project timeline), it was untimely to access students in the post-16 institutions due to the exam period. Emergency planning avoided an early crisis which had the potential to undermine the whole project. As coordinator, Karen Duggan proposed offering pre-entry guidance via two events in September prior to the Induction period. Invitations to the impartial pre-entry events were sent out to all applicants who had put MMU as one of their six UCAS choices from target groups identified in the bid. These were Excellence Challenge institutions which have already been identified by the government as housing high numbers of non-traditional students. Only selected LEA’s were identified that were considered ‘local’ to MMU Manchester and MMU Cheshire. Foundation Year applicants were also identified as a target group in the bid as they can be profiled as recruiting high numbers of students at risk of dropout. As the Foundation Year has dedicated support staff who already offer pre-entry guidance to applicants, it was felt by the Foundation Year team that TIPS should focus on offering pre-entry guidance to all the students who came through clearing only. Value was ‘added’ at this stage by including students from Access courses in the invitation loop as it was identified that mature students could benefit from pre-entry guidance but had been overlooked in the bid. This doubled the amount of target colleges from 17 to 35. Invites went out in the third week in August 2003 in order to include clearing applicants. As there was only a small window for applicants to respond, pre-paid envelopes, maps and booking forms were included.
As induction week began on 22nd September, TIPS decided to run two events; Manchester on 8th September 2003 and MMU Cheshire on the 15th September 2003 . An overview of the 13 workshops on offer at each event was sent to applicants with invitations to attend. Applicants were asked to select their top five workshops in advance to identify what their individual key areas of concern were at the pre-entry stage.
300 applicants booked to attend the events. Staff from support services agreed to deliver workshops and contribute an overview of their session to a pre-entry resource pack. This meant that applicants received information on the workshops which they hadn’t selected as well as the ones chosen as their top five choices. All those who booked, whether they attended or not were sent packs thus splitting levels of guidance to materials only (level 1 pre-entry) or event plus materials (level 2 pre-entry). At the start of each event , applicants were made aware of a question and answer box which they could post questions in and this formed the basis of the question and answer forum at the end of each day. The panel who responded to these questions were a selection of facilitators that the students had interacted with throughout the event. Practitioner as well as student feedback was collected and collated to produce an analysis of the utility of the events from their own perspectives.
Induction week followed and the TIPS team saw this as an opportunity to raise the profile of this new service. Flyers were produced and distributed around the campuses during Fresher’s Week and were also included in Foundation Year student guides. Information about TIPS was included in the general introduction to Student Services talk which is delivered to all new students at University. Posters were also produced which overviewed the TIPS service and these were strategically positioned in and around the University buildings. It was felt by the team that it was difficult to promote the on-course service to our target groups as this would highlight exclusion of new students outside the target groups and so was offered to all new students at MMU, whether in Year Zero (Foundation Year) or in Year One. Tracking of target groups was to be extracted from this and those outside of our targets could be seen as ‘added value’ alongside mature students from Access pathways already identified as an additional target group. TIPS continued to offer an overview of the service to students at course level throughout the academic year. Induction should be seen as a process, not an event and as students are so overwhelmed with both the new experience and a wealth of information during induction week, this approach has been beneficial, resulting in many more students accessing the service.
On Course Support For 2003 Entrants
TIPS ran Faculty workshops from the beginning of the Autumn term on Budgeting Tips, Hardship Fund applications, CV building, Critical Reading and Writing, Writing For Academia and Presentation Skills. During the Spring Term, TIPS in conjunction with Learning Support offered Exam Revision workshops at course and Faculty level around the university. Drop-ins were also offered in the Summer term for students doing re-sits.
A one-to-one student menu for face-to-face one hour sessions was offered on-course by TIPS in response to student feedback . Menus were made available to MMU students so that they could highlight their required support. The menu included finance concerns, study skills, CV support, general advice and guidance regarding HE issues, specific advice for mature students and support for coping with exams. Again, as with the pre-entry menu, students were able to outline their key areas of required support which profiles the changing demand and context of HE from students own perspectives.
Additional to the one-to-one student menu, TIPS offered this service at course level to tutors. This more structured approach has proved to be very successful for vocational courses that attract a high number of diverse students from non-academic backgrounds. For example, we offered assignment support to students based at the Didsbury campus on Youth and Community and Social Work programmes. This entailed sitting in on lectures, offering assignment support drop-ins directly after lectures as well as mini-focus group sessions to identify where students felt inadequate and using this to guide further tailored support from TIPS e.g. basic I.T. workshops. By liaising with course leaders we were able to understand the demands on students through course outlines and assignment briefs. We offered each student the opportunity to be supported through drafts of assignments in terms of style and structure but not content so that they could transfer knowledge to their future assignments.
TIPS have collated as well as developed a plethora of study materials related to the topics on the study skills element of the student menu and these have been offered to all students who accessed the TIPS service. They are also displayed on stands outside the Learning Support Unit for students to access. Mature Students and Postgraduate 2004 packs were particularly successful and thousands of requests were made by individual students as well as from departments highlighting that no other specific materials were available to support these groups. The TIPS team developed a referral system for other staff in student services, tutors, personal tutors and other student support staff to signpost students to the TIPS service. Many personal tutors highlighted that they were unsure as to where their role ends and additional support should begin. This highlights the need for further clarification as to the roles and boundaries of the role of a personal tutor. In particular, TIPS has taken a lot of referrals from Learning Support (LS) who were understaffed at the beginning of the academic year. TIPS took on board all their study skills referrals (irrespective of year of study for the student-’added value’) so that LS could focus on the disability element of their service until they were back to their full staffing ratio. This is a good example of how TIPS have supported a support service, moving them from a reactive to a proactive state.
Pre-Entry Guidance 2004
Pre-entry guidance in post-16 institutions for 2004 applicants was offered as a further project strand with a focus on applying to university, careers guidance and study skills in preparation for HE study. As pre-entry guidance for 2003 entry was approached as an event because we were unable to access students whilst studying in 16-18 provision, pre-entry guidance for 2004 entry was approached in accordance with the bid which addressed this more as a process. We looked at three key levels of provision so that we ‘H.U.G.’ the target institutions. In real terms this means that we offered ‘H’ for Headstart Study Skills in preparation for HE and is available in on-line and paper-based study skills. This can be viewed at www.headstart4U.net . This package offers similar topics to the student menu and can be accredited by Greater Manchester Open College Network (GMoCN) for 1 unit at level 3.
In conjunction with Education Liaison, TIPS offered ‘U’ for UCAS support to students applying to university by advising on personal statements and working together on the UCAS roadshows. The CoMMUnity newsletter was used to facilitate this process as it contains a user friendly article on how to apply to university as well as case studies, useful website addresses and a comprehensive article on finance (see issue 4) www.mmu.ac.uk/foundation/newsletters . The final level of support offered was ‘G’ for general HE advice and guidance.
A Frequently Asked Questions booklet was developed to guide new students joining the University in September 2004 and was a response to students queries during the previous academic year. This has formed part of the TIPS embedding strategy as well as an on-line resource centre for students to be able to download all TIPS materials; generating a legacy of the project www.mmu.ac.uk/tips
Obstacles To Student Wellbeing: Contributing Factors
From this research project analysis, several key themes were identified by students as obstacles which detract from student wellbeing.
Accessibility of support Institutional culture-‘not fitting in’ Staff and student interaction Lack of confidence Financial Hardship The Learning Environment Work and Family-external pressures and commitments
Other Key Findings
- Pre-entry guidance needs to facilitate ‘preparedness’ for HE study
- Support needs to be responsive and readily available
- IT/Library/ Financial literacy is key to success
- Predominately females have accessed the one-to-one service
- Mature/postgraduate students need targeted support
- English for academic studies-home students for whom English is a second language need targeted support
This research aimed to show how a democratic, multi-method approach to data collection can produce a fruitful base to building on our understanding of relationships which facilitate student support. It also aimed to demonstrate the benefits of using a multidisciplinary, inter-professional and inter-agency focus. There is a need to work from a project perspective and propose a way of thinking about combining research and practice which practitioners might want to take forward.
TIPS, during one academic year (2003/ 4), has offered and mapped support strategies to students who are at different stages of their personal journey towards achieving a ‘certificate of cultural competence’ (Bourdieu, 1986). Whilst this could be considered as taking positive steps towards shaping democratic and representative pathways into the labour market for diverse communities, the intention adhered to was to maintain reflexivity and responsivity to student support.
‘….universities themselves need to consider the type and level of support they offer to their students, the extent to which their organizational arrangements and academic cultures are exclusionary, and the ways in which they might need to change to better meet the needs of a diverse student body.’
(Leathwood and O’Connell: 2003.612)
An overarching aim of this research, was to stimulate debates around the negative and positive dialogue that such new positions generate within wider society. Diverse communities within the education sector have already inherited age-old typologies that situate them in marginalised positions through discourse such as ‘non-traditional’, ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’ students.
Bourdieu (1977) referred to ‘institutional habitus’ – educational institutions favour knowledge and experience of dominant social groups to the detriment of other groups.
‘In relation to student retention in HE the notions of habitus and institutional habitus appear to be useful tools. If a student feels that they do not fit in, that their social and cultural practices are inappropriate and that their tacit knowledge is undervalued, they may be more inclined to withdraw early.’
Liz Thomas has identified from empirical research that universities need
‘inclusive teaching and learning strategies which do not assume that the habitus of ‘traditional’ HE students should be the habitus of new cohorts. This includes an awareness of different previous educational experiences, the language of instruction and implied requirements, alternative learning styles and needs and other assumed norms.’
As current debates on widening participation, student retention and success suggest there is a need for further research and dissemination of models of good practice. TIPS is one example of how an institution has responded to the current debates and as such offers practitioners useful insights and strategies for supporting students. As a result of utilising an ‘action research’ approach TIPS contributes to more than a distanced theoretical perspective but rather highlights findings that are based on direct practitioner experiences of working in the field of Student Support.
The full project report will be available in December 2004 from which practitioners will gain an understanding of TIPS as a student support service and as an action research retention project. Practitioners will be able to assess its usefulness as a framework for supporting a diverse body of students. The TIPS team has both examined the methods of student support adopted by TIPS, in response to student needs and embarks on a critical evaluation of its success. By using specific case studies of students who have accessed the TIPS support, an identification and analysis of issues and problems will be highlighted. The intention is to further enable practitioners to reflect on the structures of support within their own practice and develop interventions to promote diversity alongside student success.
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Thomas, L (2002) Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus, Journal of Educational Policy, Vol 17, No 4, pp 423-442
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Woodrow,M (2000) Widening Participation. What’s it really all about? (Online) http://www.brad.ac.uk/admin/conted/action/ context/mwabout.html
Karen Duggan & Gill Rice
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telephone: 0161 247 2375
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