'We must fight inequities'

December 7, 2001

Unequal access to universities between rich and poor is just one of many institutionalised inequities, the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education will hear next week.

Research papers delivered to the conference show that traditional teaching and assessment systems, as well as financial hardship, are damaging the academic attainment and experiences of non-traditional students.

These disadvantages continue to the job market. The challenge of providing equality in higher education is a key theme of the THES -sponsored conference, "Excellence, Enterprise and Equity", at Madingley Hall, Cambridge University.

Marie Stowell, of University College Northampton, will call for a "critical review" of how lecturers and tutors reach assessments and grade work.

Her paper, "Equity, Justice and Standards", says that academics reach decisions about students' progression and make awards, including degree classifications, in ways that are "unquestioned and taken for granted".

Possible sources of inequality that could hit poorer students include the use of personal discretion by examiners and the general understanding of "standards".

A paper by Michael and Helen Pokorny, both of the University of North London, shows that traditional teaching styles hit non-traditional students hardest. Their paper, "Numeracy and Student Progression", examined students' progress on a UNL module that had a poor first-time pass rate.

"Students who have been perhaps labelled a failure through most of their secondary education have motivation and confidence problems," Helen Pokorny said.

"We are looking at how they are assessed and taught. Teaching in large lecture groups, for example, offers fewer opportunities for giving individual... support."

Research from the University of Northumbria shows that academic attainment is damaged in proportion to the number of hours a student spends in term-time employment. Principal researcher Andrew Hunt said that this hits the attainment of poorer students, who are more reluctant to go into debt and who receive less financial support from parents.

* Scottish parliamentarians are pressing for a debate on student hardship in the new year as students estimate debt levels north of the border could top £1.45 billion.

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