In recent years the Government has put a lot of effort into increasing participation in Higher Education, using a wide variety of methods including a lot of media advertising. Although this may account for a large proportion of an increase in the diversity of present student populations, changes in British society have also had significant impacts on the variety of students in British universities at present.
In today’s society there are a lot of attributes that have affected the types of students entering into university, both as students out of school, and also mature students looking to widen their qualifications. An increase in mature student participation is mainly due to a lack of career stability, and so people are having to re-train in other fields in order to obtain jobs. Preece (1998) notes that the trend for a more diverse student population “has generally been stimulated by the upskilling needs of a fast changing world and demographic age population shifts.” As well as changes in the way society is operating, there are other changes, and improvements that have led to students who earlier would not have even considered higher education, now being able, and encouraged to enrol in higher education. An improved welfare state has meant that disabled people may be better supported during their early education. As a result, more young people with special needs are achieving the entry requirements for university. In addition, increased material wealth has led to higher aspirations in terms of education. Parents have high expectations of their children and perceive university degrees as an essential to entering the jobs-market.
In her article Student retention in higher education: the role of institutional habitus Liz Thomas studies the economic barriers that affect students while they are at university. Finance was discovered to be a major problem for students, and also led to a large proportion of them thinking of ‘dropping out’ of university before they had finished their degrees. Thomas found that this problem consisted of three issues.
A general lack of money and concern about future debt
A comparative lack of money especially in comparison to friends in full time employment
The need to work while studying and the pressure this adds to the student
One student, in her study, worked out that during their time at university, four years, they will have spent a total of ï¿½41,000. This is a large figure for someone who is in the process of gaining qualifications in the hope to acquire full time employment. Thomas found that the majority of students that she surveyed (87.5%), at some point, felt that they worried about finance.
The second issue is more connected to how the student feels in comparison to either friends who, instead of going to university, have joined full time employment and are earning ‘good’ money, or comparing the students past employment, if any. One student, in the study, commented: “It’s difficult if you’ve got mates at home who are working and they’ve got jobs and you’ve got nothing.”
The third issue involves a lot of students, and is linked with the other two issues as well. Due to financial difficulties, students are in need to work to supplement income. These can either be undertaken during term time or during the holidays when students are at home. These jobs mainly consist of bar work, call centre staff or secretarial and administrative jobs. Unfortunately, though, these employers know the desperation of these students, and so also know they only have to pay minimum wage. The hours that students work varies during term time between 30-40 hours per week, but Thomas found some students working between 50-60 hours a week during holidays, in order to control the debt that had built up during the term. This also brings about the problem of managing time during term time. Even with working hours between 30-40 hours per week, students are left with little time for university work such as essays and reading.
These problems affect mature students just as much as younger students. In Thomas’ study there was one mature student who, after working full time for eight years, had returned to university. He was having to pay ï¿½200 to pay back debt from his working life, before he started paying anything towards university life. In the end he was forced to obtain the ‘hardship’ loan to help his situation. Even with this extra loan, however, he was still left with about ï¿½20 per week to spend on himself. This illustrates how many students simply have no idea of the magnitude of these debts and also how they can affect life in higher education. Surprisingly, in this study, 36% of the students who had had an idea of the debt situation said that this did not affect their decision on whether to go to university or not. Also, of the students that did not realise how much of a problem debt would be, 80% said that if they had known of these problems it still would not have changed their thoughts of going into higher education.
With an increase in student diversity, universities have to acknowledge a variety in student backgrounds as well. The styles of teaching that the students will have experienced before university will have been different from the teachings of other students. For example, the skills needed to gain grades at AS and A level exams differ greatly from those that are needed to obtain NVQ or HND qualifications. The teaching methods which are familiar to young people in today’s schools are very different from those which mature students and, indeed, most university lecturers, will have been familiar with. For many students returning to study the use of technology in learning is unfamiliar and confusing while others find word-processing easier than writing. “Language-related factors, especially verbal, can be a major source of misunderstandings in communicating with international students.” (De Vita, 2000) Cultural and language barriers may also hamper the communication of teachings between student and lecturers. Students may be fluent in conversational English but may struggle on more technical, or subject specific lexicon.
Having gained an insight into the pre-university experience, university staff may then consider programme design and delivery, particularly for first year students. Course content may have been established on the basis that students are expected to have a common starting point for study. As a wider range of pre-university qualifications become available this may become a less realistic expectation. Academic staff can ensure that barriers are not created in the first few weeks by familiarising themselves with the content of pre-university courses and developing a syllabus which can dovetail with students’ prior knowledge. The delivery of taught sessions is often dependent on the student having an understanding of the appropriate vocabulary. This can often form a barrier for those for whom English is a second language or those who have had a break from education. The production of a glossary of academic terminology pertaining to the subject may provide an appropriate starting point for many such students.
The means of assessment can often cause a lot of anxiety amongst students, especially during the first year of studies, when techniques such as referencing are new. Lecturers can ease this transition by stating clear criteria for the assessment, which instils confidence in the student, as they understand what is expected of them. Many students will require modifications to their assessments due to disability. Clear assessment criteria enable support staff such as disability advisers to make the most appropriate recommendations. While the development of such procedures is expected under the Disability Discrimination Act, it can also prove useful in circumstances where students experience particular family problems.
Language also plays a disruptive part in assessment issues as some students, who do not have a full grasp on the English language may not understand the full meaning of the questions that are being asked. This can also be a problem when feedback is concerned with misinterpretation of the marker’s comments. Channock (2000) identified issues surrounding the interpretation of written feedback. Students misunderstand common marking comments and, as a result, comments that were intended to be constructive may be perceived as critical.
Most of the problems that raise barriers to student achievement are, themselves, due to and increase in student diversity. This increase in diversity has led to an increase in student intake, which directly leads to lecturers having to teach to larger numbers of students. The teaching methods at university will be very different to what students have witnessed at school, and therefore can seem intimidating. These lectures are often conducted in large lecture theatres, to a large number of students and very impersonal compared to lessons at school. To combat this universities use seminars as a more personal teaching environment, but people with language problems may find it daunting to participate among English speaking peers. It is also very difficult for students to arrange individual appointments with tutors if they wish to discuss drafts of written work. For many students this would have been common practice in their previous courses and they lack the ability to be self-critical.
These problems can be limited by the inclusion of extra study skills lessons, but these must be tailored for the individual course and not for the university as a whole. Extra workshops are sometimes used to tackle language barriers. These could involve a tutor to go through work, or lecture slides, and make sure that students have fully understand what has been said. This, however, does require that the tutor has a vast knowledge of the course that is being studied as well as the language spoken by the students. During student inductions, generally freshers’ week, there can be library inductions to teach students the best ways to research topics as well as referencing properly. Also at this time they are also note-taking workshops to aid students through the transition from school lessons to university lectures, which is a very different form of teaching and learning. Later on in the academic year revision workshops can be very useful for students, to check that they have understood what they have been taught over the last year, and can prepare for the up and coming exams. As well as face-to-face workshops, online support can be beneficial to some students, as long as it is easily accessible. Other students may prefer printed booklets, but whichever form this support takes, the most important thing is that it is directly connected with the course that is being studied. Some of the study support can, sometimes, be seen as remedial and if this is the case students may suffer.
With the issues of finance already discussed, it can be hard to see why some students decide to stay within the institution when they are under pressure, whether financial or not. Bourdieu’s idea of ‘habitus’ refers to the norms and practices of particular social classes and groups. From this Liz Thomas talks about ‘institutional habitus’ and how it can be used to determine the way in which difference is dealt with, and thus the way students encountering difference for the first time react.
If widening participation is to ensure wider access to higher education, a range of factors must be taken into account. Universities must become more aware of the diversity within the student body. They must also look critically at the assumptions that can be made when designing and delivering courses. By considering student background in conjunction with course design and delivery the barriers which students may encounter can be identified and something can be put in place to solve these problems. If the majority of students find access to the course difficult it may be appropriate to rethink the current approach of providing additional support.
“While most institutions recognise that students from under-represented groups need to change to survive in an 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.” Maggie Woodrow (2000)
By gaining in depth knowledge of students universities can implement new methods in their teachings to include more personal and effective learning.