Strategies needed to widen student access and success

An international study into higher education participation has revealed unequal representation across socio-economic groups in several countries. The review of six nations will inform an access and student success strategy being developed for England, and among other things recommends alternative entry requirements and bridging programmes, and more inclusive learning and teaching.

The study report, International Research on the Effectiveness of Widening Participation, also uncovers participation disparities relating to the reputation and prestige of institutions – degree types offered, research and teaching focus, and the type and length of programmes.

The evidence shows that students from lower socio-economic groups are less likely than their better-off peers to attend highly selective institutions. Rather, they are likely to select ‘low-ranked’ universities or those with former ‘polytechnic’ or ‘institute of technology’ status, in each of the countries surveyed.

Produced by CFE and Edge Hill University for the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access, the report was based on evidence from six national case studies detailing effective approaches to widening participation strategy and practices.

The countries studied were England, Ireland, the United States, The Netherlands, Norway and South Africa.

The report highlights, for instance, extraordinary success in expanding access but dismal retention and completion rate of students at South African universities – where about 50% of undergraduate and postgraduate students do not complete their degrees – compared with The Netherlands, where the average progression rate for traditional university students is 85%.

The study’s aims were to examine the impact and effectiveness of activity and policies on widening participation and success in higher education, and to investigate education systems from pre-school to higher education to discover “whether there are systemic factors which make progression to and success in higher education for those from more disadvantaged backgrounds more or less likely”.

Key recommendations

According to a release, the study findings highlighted “many similarities in the challenges and approaches” in the efforts of the six countries to ensure equitable entry and success in higher education. The key recommendations are:
  • • A greater role for evaluation at national and institutional levels.
  • • A review of financial support, as there needed to be a balance between costs incurred by students and the amount of financial support available, and of alternative models of financial aid including consideration of how adults, people on social benefits and middle-income students might best be supported.
  • • A more coordinated approach to information, advice and guidance across the student lifecycle.
  • • A more collaborative and ‘joined up’ approach to work in schools, colleges and higher education institutions, “to raise not just aspiration, but increase attainment and promote progression to higher education”.
  • • Good practice sharing.
  • • More mainstream consideration of alternative entry routes and bridging programmes to facilitate access for academically well prepared young people and adults who otherwise would lack appropriate entry qualifications and preparation.
  • • Greater consideration of the contribution of learning and teaching strategies in improving retention and success, “including the contribution of staff development to facilitate this”.
Some key findings

Among key findings were that social class – whether measured in terms of family income, occupational classification or neighbourhood – was a primary determinant of educational attainment at school level and access to higher education.

Students from higher socio-economic groups or those who attended ‘advantaged’ schools were significantly more likely than those from lower socio-economic groups or ‘deprived’ schools to: come from families with high levels of parental education; have positive experiences of schooling; complete compulsory and secondary schooling; achieve the grades necessary for higher education entry; achieve grades needed for admission to a selective university; and have the knowledge and confidence to make informed decisions about further and higher education.

The thorny issue of financial aid also came under the spotlight, as did international comparisons on basic and further as well as higher education.

The authors suggested that more consideration be given to ensuring higher education study was underpinned by a financial aid system that would contribute to widening access and facilitating retention, completion and success beyond higher education.

A balance needed to be found between the students’ costs (through fees) and the amount of financial support available through a combination of grants, income-contingent loans and initiatives like bursaries and scholarships.

In Ireland a ‘Special Rate of Maintenance’ was introduced in 2000, as a top-up grant for students from households with the lowest income levels. The Student Assistance Fund – a hardship fund – was increased from €5 million to €9 million (US$6.8 million to US$12.2 million) in the 2011-12 academic year because higher education institutions in Ireland were experiencing ‘unprecedented levels of demand’.

International evidence and research in the UK showed that there was inadequate funding to provide financial aid to all eligible students, as demand usually exceeded supply for state and institutional bursaries.

In the United States there were also questions about the adequacy of the current system’s methods for measuring financial need among independent students, especially mature students and those in work.

In most countries income support and-or student loan schemes are available to all on a means-tested basis. South Africa was a notable exception, where National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding was insufficient to award state loans to all applicants who potentially qualified for assistance.

Access and foundation courses

The value of collaboration and partnership in the early stages of education was emphasised, and early intervention in primary education and continuing engagement with students as they moved through secondary school, could be effective.

Pre-entry access and foundation courses, delivered in partnership between higher education institutions and schools, could prepare students for university and college.

Access courses typically provide career guidance and opportunities for students to become familiar with higher education, alongside developmental tuition in areas like maths, English, applied writing, information technology and study skills.

There was evidence to suggest that access and foundation courses made a positive contribution to retention and completion, in addition to access.

In Ireland, evaluation of access programmes highlighted several areas of effective practice with respect to working with schools in disadvantaged areas, including early and sustained work with primary school pupils. Many potential students might be ‘lost’ if programmes worked only in concentrated ways with senior cycle secondary school pupils.

In South Africa, access courses had a positive impact on pass rates in the first and second year of study but did not necessarily translate into higher graduation rates, calling for continued support to be available throughout the duration of the course.

A study from the United States demonstrated the positive impact of coaching on retention rates. In one initiative about 13,000 students received weekly telephone support from coaches who were able to leverage existing campus resources to help students overcome challenges.

Research estimated that participants were 12% more likely to stay in higher education in comparison to a control group, and 13% more likely to graduate.

The report said thinking should be applied to devise a universal approach to student retention, followed up with targeted approaches when students’ behaviour or performances showed a greater risk of under-achieving or withdrawing.

Norway takes a universal approach to all issues related to access and success in higher education, and has no marked difference in the withdrawal of students from different social or economic backgrounds.

A number of studies in the US have demonstrated the importance of mainstream rather than remedial academic support for students. South Africa has taken an additional approach to supporting academically weaker students, although the longer term impact of this approach on outcomes for students is, as yet, not certain.

Efficiency, or delivering the most effective use of limited public and institutional resources, was key to achieving an appropriate balance between financial support, outreach and retention activities at higher education institutions worldwide.