I was delighted to chair the theme ‘progression – the social mobility conundrum and access to postgraduate studies’ at the OU’s Widening Participation Conference at the Hilton Hotel in April 2018. There were 5 contributors to the strand, all taking a unique perspective on the issues of social mobility and progression.  Despite their different theoretical perspectives and methodologies, the key themes that they addressed had much more in common than might be thought at first glance.

‘I made the leap’: Accessing postgraduate study with art and design, Sam Broadhead, Leeds Art University, UK was the first presentation. Sam discussed the need for students to engage in an access course before starting Postgraduate Study where their Undergraduate study was in a very different subject area, in her case Art and Design.  Sam challenged us to think about what students were trying to gain ‘access to’ and highlighted the challenges facing Access Tutors when they are trying to support students with a range of objectives and previous learning experiences.  Not for the first time in these presentations we were introduced to the idea of students working within systems, facing challenges and making pragmatic decisions, rather than systems working for them.

Our second presentation was A Study of Disability Identity and Disclosure for Students with Invisible Disabilities, Latacha HamiltonSt. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, USA. Latacha explored the concepts of disability identity, academic self-efficacy and disclosure.  From the beginning the links between Sam and Latacha’s papers were clear and learner identity and student agency were starting to emerge as key themes.  Latacha is based in the USA and so the policy context, particularly around disability policy and the differing context of health provision provided a fascinating focus of discussion during the plenary.  Latacha expressed the importance that students placed on using the support mechanisms and processes that they had learnt during previous study experiences in their Higher Education studies.

Our third and final presentation from the morning session was Transition as transformation: developing student identities and academic literacies through a university pathways programme in Australia, Jennifer Stokes, University of South Australia. As Jennifer is based in South Australia it meant that our morning had a truly international feel to it.  Again, Jennifer’s work explored student identity and discussed the importance of the national policy context in enabling young people from underrepresented groups to access Higher Education.  Just as Sam had identified the need for Access Tutors to understand the range of student motivations and experiences, Jennifer’s work identified the importance of ‘enabling pedagogies’ with Lecturers relating examples to students’ lived experiences.  Jennifer challenged us all to recognise that underrepresented students did bring cultural capital with them but not the ‘valorised’ cultural capital that universities recognised and that could easily help them navigate Higher Education systems and processes.

Key themes which were identified across the three presentations were:

  1. the challenges of ‘stigma’ around being a widening-participation student, either by the students themselves or others and notions of imposter syndrome or a need to ‘prove themselves’ were apparent in all three.
  2. Learner progress into successful study was transformative for those involved.
  3. Students often succeed ‘in spite’ of the system rather than because of it. Their own motivation supports them to work with a faulty system but in doing so develops their agency.

Joshua Stubbs, University of Oxford, UK Contrasting undergraduates’ experiences of higher education, plans for life after graduation and perceptions of postgraduate study (No slides used) was our first presenter during the second session. He interviewed students from Russell Group and Post 94 universities to compare their perceptions and motivations to continue their studies. The labour market was seen as being an important factor for all his participants going into PG study, but a small subset of his participants wanted to continue their studies as they had already achieved more than they had thought they would, perhaps being first time HE entrants from their families, and wanted to continue whilst they were in the system. Joshua identified that whilst the job market was important, intrinsic rewards in being in the ‘right’ career meant that graduates were not always accessing graduate careers when they did enter the job market. A strong theme he identified was that post graduate study was reported as a way to ‘stand out’.

Our final presentation of the conference, in this theme, explored Sandwich placements: Negating the socio-economic effect on graduate prospects, Michael KerriganNottingham Trent University, UK. Michael shared his institution’s use of sandwich placements to reduce student attainment gaps. Through his study with his colleagues they identified that students on a sandwich placement are more likely to go on to graduate employment. Of key importance to those in the room was their findings that students from low socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to participate in sandwich placements, but if they did then they are as likely as non-WP students sandwich students to gain employment in progressional occupations, basically closing the attainment gap.

Key themes which were identified across the presentations were:

  1. Widening Participation Students feel that they need to do more than their counterparts to ‘stand out’ – Joshua identified this as being Post Graduate study for his students and Michael identified the importance of sandwich courses for his.
  2. WP students, including adult learners and those re-entering their studies at PG level, don’t have the linear learning experiences of ‘traditional’ students. To be effective, the systems and process that support them must recognise this.

I would like to say a huge thank you to all our speakers who shared their research with us and challenged everyone in attendance to think about our practices. Clearly, if we are to welcome all students in to our learning institutions we must first recognise them all as being deserving of being there.  We must recognise that all students bring capital, will have their own experiences and challenges, and have something to offer us.  To do this though Higher Education must be prepared to transform as much as we challenge our students to.


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