Access initiatives miss mark

September 7, 2007

Efforts to widen participation in higher education are poorly conceived and patchy, education researchers will tell the British Educational Research Association.

The Government's Aimhigher initiative does not reach the most deprived students because of crude and inaccurate targeting of both ethnic minorities and students with no family participation in higher education, Colin McCaig and Tamsin Bowers-Brown of Sheffield Hallam University will report.

"The groups targeted are not the same as the ones that are most needy," said Dr McCaig, adding that students with disabilities, from black backgrounds, the lowest socioeconomic groups and those who have been in care face particularly acute disadvantages.

Universities and colleges are helping "easy-to-reach" non-traditional students, many of whom already plan to go to university, rather than those who most need help, he argues.

"Aimhigher fails to fulfil its potential to be a force for social justice," the paper will say.

A study by Nick Adnett and Diana Tlupova of the Institute for Education Policy Research at Staffordshire University found that many students eligible for financial support were unaware of available bursaries and scholarships, even after starting study, with information hard to access and frequently provided too late.

Mary Thornton of Hertfordshire and Pat Bricheno of Cambridge University will present a paper criticising the lack of evidence behind initiatives to widen access and retain students.

While "money has been thrown" at such initiatives, there has been "relatively little improvement overall", they will argue.

Most widening participation initiatives are aimed at schoolchildren and focus on barriers of cost, attainment and identity, but mature students have different concerns, Alison Fuller and Karen Paton from Southampton University will say.

Career prospects and family and friends are much more influential, Professor Fuller said.

"Subjects rarely talk about barriers, but key factors that influence their choice, or not, to engage in higher education," she explained.

THE STUDENT EXPERIENCE: ROUND-UP OF CONFERENCE PAPERS

* Students often conceive of their university experience as a journey, with elements of both risk and comfort, Dilly Fung of Exeter has found.

Dr Fung studied how traditional and non-traditional students described their first year as undergraduates at an "old" university, and the metaphors they used to discuss their changing identities and the connections between relationships and learning.

She urges "a fresh look" at the way researchers and practitioners consider students' experiences.

Dr Fung will argue that students' relationships are central to their university experience.

* British students and universities may be missing out on opportunities for cultural interchange offered by globalised higher education, Rosalyn George and Anna Traianou of Goldsmiths College, London will report. They will present findings on the perspectives of Greek, Chinese and American doctoral students in the UK, noting that while most were generally happy, many were disappointed with their social experiences. They will say that greater focus on the motives, expectations and cultural integration of international students is required for the UK to remain competitive, and will cite one Chinese student who said: "You need the money, you want us to come, so you need to do something about it."

* Living at home, or making regular visits home, helps non-traditional students deal with the potentially alien environment of higher education, a team of researchers led by John Clayton from Sunderland University will say.

They say that "the familiar and what is known" was critical for the comfort of the working-class students they studied. The team will also present findings on higher education students' coping tactics.

* E-learning must be much more than merely "dumping PowerPoint slides on the web", Ian Kinchin from King's College London will argue. Teaching considerations must come before technological considerations for effective e learning materials, Dr Kinchin's team of researchers say.

They will show how software called Impatica allows the lecturer to record a commentary to accompany online presentations, so that benefits of learning in the traditional lecture theatre are maintained online.

They hope such software will force lecturers to think about the materials they put on the internet, and how students use it.

* Self-harming students are rare, but they may be more prevalent in certain subject areas and can significantly affect their peers, Ron Best of Roehampton University will tell the conference. Professor Best will present case studies of deliberate self-harm, including attempted suicide, cutting, binge-drinking and drug abuse among students at a London university.

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