This seminar, the first one in CICP’s 2015/16 seminar series was very well attended by both internal and external colleagues and provided a mix of academic and practitioner based approaches to students who are considered the first in their family to attend university.  There were presentations from Sarah O’shea, joining from the University of Wollongong,  Australia by Skype, Dr Margaret Henley in person from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, Sam Broadhead from the Leeds College of Art and Professor Jacqueline Stevenson from the Sheffield Institute of Education.  Several topics emerged from the presentations and something that stood out to me in particular, was the voice of the family members when interviewed in Sarah O’shea’s research.  We sometimes hear of parents being inspired by their children being the first in their family to go to university but in this instance it was the children of family’s who were considered ‘non’ traditional that were inspired by their parents, to consider attending university in the future.

Sam Broadhead’s presentation raised a lot of questions about the assumptions sometimes made in curriculum design regarding how students from ‘widening participation’ backgrounds can engage with the requirements of the curriculum.  In this instance the use of ‘studio space’, a less structured environment within which students use and develop their own art space, creates a challenge to students who require more scaffolding, to enable them to the develop the skills necessary for them to benefit from this type of learning environment.

Dr Margaret Henley showcased a wonderful mentoring scheme adopted within the University of Auckland, where students not considered ‘widening participation’ were desperate to receive the same support, which resulted in the programme being rolled out more broadly – this demonstrates a more inclusive approach to widening participation rather than seeing widening participation students as different.  It felt a little bit like the deficit model had been turned on its head.  There was great energy in the video clip we watched as mentors directed students to the different areas of the library that would provide them with the additional support to help them complete their assignment for example or to even understand what the question was actually asking of them. Professor’s Stevenson whirlwind talk posed more questions than answers and I’m really looking forward to her speaking at the WP Conference in April, luckily she will be there for the whole two days which should provide delegates with an opportunity to explore some of the issues she raised around:

  • Social mobility not just about being bottom up but also the need for top down – is there enough room at the top to enable social mobility or do some of those at the top need to move down the ladder to make space for the upwardly mobile?
  • The perceived homogeneity of widening participation students, something reported from John Butcher’s Part-Time Now research for the HEA
  • The challenges facing students who are refugees, often bringing with them degrees and HE qualifications that aren’t recognized in the UK.  Are they first generation students??

Jacqueline’s shift in focus away from first in family towards family more generally highlighted the support that family members offer to students who are the first to go to university, the need for institutions to recognize this and involve the family more during that transitional period.  This support was evident in Sarah’s presentation with family members perhaps not always understanding the reasons behind their family member going to university but feeling a sense of pride and positivity  towards them in doing so.  It was interesting to hear the stories of the students who either felt that they couldn’t talk to their families about what they were doing at university because they wouldn’t understand it, to those that thrived on explaining what they were doing, transferring their learning to their family members.

You can download the presentations from the seminar here and continue the discussion by tweeting @access_observe #OUFirstInFamily.

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