Critical Perspectives on Transitions into, through and beyond Higher Education

By Wendy Ashall, Emily Danvers, Yasser Kosber, Rosa Marvell and Tamsin Hinton-Smith (Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research, University of Sussex)

On 15th October, researchers, teachers and practitioners from further and higher education came together in Brighton to think critically about key moments of transition into through and beyond higher education. This event was organised by the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research (CHEER) and the Centre for Teaching and Learning Research (CTLR) at the University of Sussex.

The day began with a powerful address by Dr Sarah O’Shea from the University of Wollongong, Australia where she spoke of the specific challenges faced by first generation students who are also mature, highlighting in particular the powerful role of the ‘guide on the side’ in shaping someone’s ability to access and succeed in their educational trajectory. It also revealed the critical task of looking outside narrow institutional, regional or national policy contexts to understand transition and educational inequalities as a global concern.

We then went into a series of themed break-out sessions.

Session One focused on Re-thinking the Role of the Social in Transition. Stephane Farenga from the University of Hertfordshire drew on arts-based methods to explore the powerful role of peers for students negotiating their way through the neoliberal academy. This was followed by Jane Creaton and Rachel Moss from the University of Portsmouth who presented a project exploring the transitions faced by doctoral students and the impacts of these on their mental health, with mentoring circles suggested as an important tool for mediating complex lives. Lastly, Jacqui Shepherd from the University of Sussex, highlighted some of the challenges faced by autistic students transitioning to further education and the implications of these findings for higher education institutions wishing to support such students inclusively.

Session Two focused on Elite Spaces in Transition. Steve Dixon-Smith from the University of London drew attention to the crucial role that discursive processes play in (re)forming identity affiliations through analysis of initial interviews with black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) architecture students. Next, Carli Rowell from the University of Glasgow shared insight from her ethnography of working-class, first generation students at a highly-selective English university, highlighting the disenfranchising embodiments of racism and classism which pervasively shape the social and pedagogical experiences of minoritised students on campus. Lastly, Anne-Sofie Nyström from Uppsala University considered the competitive environment of intensive programmes at two highly-selective universities, exploring how this produces (gendered) anxieties and self-doubt amongst students who had previously been the ‘big fish’ in educational environments.

Session Three looked at Identities, Pedagogies and Academic Practices. Deirdre McKenna from the University of Sussex, focused on the shift for tutors from teaching English for Academic purposes to international students to teaching study skills to home students. She explored how academic staff negotiate transitions into new professional spaces alongside their students in a continually shifting academy. Sue Robbins from the University of Sussex examined ‘threshold concepts’ as a way to consider how students might transition through different relationships to knowledge and their disciplines. Finally, Rebecca Webb (co-authored with Emily Danvers and Tamsin Hinton-Smith) spoke of the transitions encountered by international doctoral students in their writing practices, highlighting how higher educations’ ‘rules of the game’ often reveal themselvess through moments of translation into new ways of thinking and being,

Session Four focussed on UK and International Policy Imperatives. Jon Rainford from Staffordshire University used comics to highlight how transitions to university are shaped by different types of institutions and individuals, revealing the powerful role of institutional and policy contexts in how transitions might be understood and supported. Alex Blower from the University of Wolverhampton then drew on research with white working -class males at a school in the West Midland to consider how broader societal discourse of ‘success’ shape and mediate their trajectories and lived experiences as students. Lastly, María Aurora Tenorio Rodríguez from Universidad de Sevilla presented her work on the employability of non -traditional university students in Spain, suggesting the complex ways marginalised students might be disadvantaged in their transition to the graduate labour market.

The penultimate session began with short presentations on the topic of the ‘typicalised’ student of HE practice by Wendy Ashall, Rosa Marvell and Yasser Kosbar from the University of Sussex, followed by roundtable discussions considering who benefits from these tropes and how we can disrupt them. The final keynote was by Dr Richard Waller from the University of the West of England who presented a stimulating account of how students’ social class shapes their ability to transition into, through and beyond higher education. Drawing on the longitudinal Paired Peers project, he described how significant inequalities were established and maintained through practices including extra-curricular, work opportunities and volunteering.

Together this day raised a series of important provocations that included:

  • While social forms of activity – from peer groups to mentors – are valuable in supporting the transition into and through higher education, what it means to be ‘social’ is not universally experienced, understood or appreciated.
  • Transitional moments can be very clear and very big (e.g. the first day in a lecture) but equally the small scale everyday activities and encounters are often home to powerfully affective dimensions of lived transitions.
  • The university itself is not a fixed or stable element of the transition journey. Practitioners experience transitions into new ways of working and national and institutional policies position students within the academy in particular ways.
  • Universities perpetuate exclusions via these fluctuating practices. Students’ identities, particularly in relation to social class, shape their ability to differentially capitalise on their educational experiences of potentially the same place.

In drawing the conference together, Tamsin Hinton-Smith and Emily Danvers spoke of how central among the themes emergent from the day were the idea of deficit and where this lies; the persistent attribution of blame and responsibility for success or failure in higher education as lying with students rather than HEIs themselves; and as Sarah O’Shea identified, the ‘invisible additional work’ that non-students must do as they make their way through the individual (and highly classed) higher education journeys described by Richard Waller. While speakers focused on a wide range of aspects of identity within the diversity of student bodies and different institutional cultures, there emerged a particular focus around the persistence of social class as what Equality Challenge Unit have referred to as the ‘elephant in the room’.

This leaves the question of how we collectively address these persistent inequalities. This includes the macro level responsibilities of policies at institutional and even national and international levels as were discussed by participants; but also the responsibilities of all of us as HE practitioners, in our many micro interactions with students. Roundtable session discussion identified the importance of all spaces for productive disruptions to the neo-liberal university, including disruptive pedagogic strategies that seek to democratise the learning context with more inclusive and welcoming approaches. 

The day was funded by CHEER and CTLR and organised by Dr Tamsin Hinton-Smith, Dr Emily Danvers, Rosa Marvell, Wendy Ashall and Yasser Kosbar. Further details and copies of presentations can be found on our website.

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