Wider access remit urged

April 10, 2008

Students from non-university families less likely to stay on after graduation. Rebecca Attwood reports

Widening participation should not stop once students enter higher education, according to new research investigating the barriers to postgraduate study.

Academics surveyed more than 1,000 final-year undergraduates and found that those without previous experience of higher education in their family were significantly less likely to stay on at university following their degree.

Those worried about debt were also less likely to continue, indicated the study commissioned by the Higher Education Academy. But this concern did not appear to be related to actual levels of debt.

Paying off debt was cited as a reason by 13 per cent of those who decided not to take a postgraduate qualification.

Ethnic minority students were more likely to be anxious about owing money, despite having higher aspirations.

"It is not the amount of debt a student might have, but rather the attitude associated with the debt that acts as a barrier to postgraduate study institutions," says the report, Widening Participation to Postgraduate Study.

Students were very concerned about job prospects, and those on theoretical courses often felt a postgraduate course would give them an "edge" in the workplace.

In contrast, those taking more vocational qualifications were less likely to undertake further study. Some said they had found study stressful and challenging and felt employers would value work experience more than further education qualifications.

Overseas students were significantly more likely to plan to take a postgraduate qualification, and the researchers said the sector should be "concerned" that recent growth in postgraduate programmes is largely due to a rise in overseas students.

They suggest that more attention should be paid to raising home students' aspirations.

The researchers, who conducted their survey at two post-92 institutions, were surprised by the extent to which students found study stressful.

Thirty-four per cent of students not staying on in higher education cited the need for a break from study as the main reason.

Mary Stuart, deputy vice-chancellor of Kingston University and lead researcher, said: "Students didn't feel that their universities were helping them make informed choices. That is worse for people who haven't had experience of higher education in their family because their families can't help them.

"I think there should be a lot more thought put into the final year of undergraduate study around encouraging and helping students to make those difficult decisions."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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