Succeeding with non-traditional learners in HE: a workshop recap

By Stephane Farenga, Deputy Head Widening Access and Student Success, University of Hertfordshire

With Liverpool bathed in sunshine, event organisers, speakers and delegates would have been forgiven for taking their eyes off the metaphorical student-success-ball. That was far from the case as over 50 attendees engaged in a day of debate and collaboration. The event, jointly organised by the University of Liverpool, Queen’s University Belfast, The Open University and the Forum for Continuing Access and Education, showcased recent regulatory changes, evidenced-based approaches to supporting students, institutional examples of ‘what works’ and group exercises.

Rae Tooth, Head of Strategy and Change for the newly enshrined Office for Students, kicked things off with a recap of recent regulatory changes. Using her usual mix of wit and personal narrative, Rae challenged us to “take a pause” and really take stock of what’s happening in our sector. In fact, Access and Participation Plans (formerly Access Agreements) are an ideal tool to do so, allowing us to review, weigh up and forecast our plans.

Michelle Morgan (Associate Professor and Associate Dean, Student Experience at Bournemouth University)–stepping in for Liz Thomas–gave an inspiring keynote about what it means to engage and support students. She touched on the role of Access and Participation Plans (who owns these, the OfS, HEIs or students?) and warned us about making blanket statements concerning student groups (e.g. “all BME students are x or y”). Instead, she referenced students as snowflakes: individuals for whom we must foster a personal sense of belonging. Here, Michelle tapped into the What Works discourse, reminding us of the four tenets that heighten a sense of belonging:

  • building peer relations among students   
  • creating meaningful student-staff interactions
  • adding knowledge and value to HE degrees
  • developing confidence and skills in students

It is worth focusing on the curriculum, Michelle reminded us, as it is the one common tool that can shape and impact a sense of belonging. She finished her speech with a personal account of her HE journey, commenting that “when I went to polytechnic it was a choice, today HE is an expectation”. As such, she argues it is now viewed as a product by students. But, with that in mind, why not support students so they get the best of their HE experience?

As part of the day, delegates were treated to the HE story of three students from the University of Liverpool and Queen’s University Belfast. All three were fantastic, being inspirational, poignant reminders of the journeys and barriers many students face. We heard from a student parent returning to education, an LGBT student finding their way in HE during a difficult personal time and the high aspirations of a BME grammar school leaver. Despite being “successes”, these were stark examples of what non-traditional students face in HE. What I found particularly interesting was two of the three felt the success of their HE experience would be measured by progression to meaningful graduate employment. This supports the notion that HE is viewed as a product, as a transactional experience from which a professional benefit is extracted. 

Two very engaging ‘lightening talk’ sessions allowed colleagues to share examples of What Works inspired programmes, including: IAG for access HE entrants (Charlotte Barratt, University of Liverpool), a transition to HE programme (Jane Wormald, Open University), good practice for supporting BTEC students (Dr Zoe Baker, University of Sheffield), a data, research and student led approach to address transition experience (Jodeine Wheatcroft and Grace Mik, Nottingham Trent University) and supporting the transition of adult learners (Wendy Fowle, pen University).

The workshop element of the event had delegates split into groups and pondering the following questions:

  1. What is your institution doing to increase engagement and belonging?
  2. What is in place at your institution to plan and manage the change required?

This highly reflective session allowed us to bounce ideas of each other and come up with holistic solutions, which were captured by event organisers and will be fed back to the sector–watch this space!

Michelle Morgan capped the day off with some final thoughts. Several of these really struck a chord with myself. Notably, “HE no longer guarantees a job, or a higher salary”, and that it should be viewed as but one rung on the “lifelong learning ladder”, an investment in students’ future. Her final thought was a reflection on the watershed year that 2018/19 promises to be: almost all young entrants in 2018/19 will have been born in the 21st century, while their educators will be from the 20th century. What a wonderful, deep and challenging thought to end a brilliant day–and one that I leave with you now!

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