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Exploring the factors that encourage and enable students from a widening participation background to stay the course

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Written by: 
Dr Ellen McHugh, Researcher
Dr Anne Chappell, Director of Teaching and Learning, Department of Education
Dr Emma Wainwright, Senior Lecturer in Education

As it stands, there is currently little publicly available evidence on the effectiveness of programmes to support widening participation (WP) in the UK. The call by OFFA, in its most recent strategic guidelines for completing 2017-18 Access Agreements, for institutions to build a community of academics and researchers to enhance understanding of WP initiatives, is a welcome development. This will hopefully encourage the sharing of best practice and better evaluation of WP related activities to ultimately improve the support we give to students from under-represented groups.

HE institutions are spending unprecedented amounts on WP schemes to encourage students from under-represented groups to apply to university – an estimated £833.5 million is earmarked to be spent on supporting access, student success and progression under access agreements in 2017/18, rising to £860.1 million in 2018/19 (OFFA, 2017). Despite this massive investment in increasing access, retention of students from under-represented groups remains problematic – the non-continuation rate for quintile 1 students taking first degrees increased from 8.1 to 8.8 per cent in 2014-15 (HEFCE, 2017). Students from under-represented groups also lag  behind their peers when it comes to graduate employment with disadvantaged students 7 percentage points less likely to find graduate-level employment than the most advantaged students (OFFA, 2017).

It goes without saying that to address these areas of concern we need a deeper and more meaningful understanding of why some students drop out, fail to thrive at university, and fail to secure rewarding employment once they graduate. At the same time, there is also a pressing need to understand what enables and encourages students to stay the course and be ‘successful’ in terms of outcomes. If we are to address the most important issues in relation to widening participation and understand the factors that impact on students and the effect of these, it is essential to look at approaches and activities in the round.

At Brunel University London, we have long recognised the need to add to our knowledge and understanding of best practice, develop our student experience, and improve our student retention rates. With this in mind, we have recently embarked on a piece of research entitled ‘Successful students: exploring the factors that encourage and enable students from a widening participation background to stay the course’. This research takes a unique approach to looking at student retention by focusing on the student lifecycle and asking final year students from under-represented backgrounds to identify and reflect upon what has enabled and encouraged them to complete their studies by drawing on the personal, institutional and structural dimensions of their lives. 

The research set out to investigate:

  • The factors that students understand to have had a positive impact on their ability to complete their studies
  • The issues they have faced while at Brunel University London and the types of support they have drawn on
  • Ideas, policies and practices the University could use to better support these students and increase retention rates and enhance their progression

As part of the research we also asked students to keep a photo diary of what has enabled and encouraged them to complete their undergraduate degree. A photographic exhibition was recently organised to showcase the photos and a selection of quotes taken from the interviews with our students at Brunel University London.

Our research is in the early stages but there are five clear messages:

  • Students have identified that feeling part of a community where they experience positive relationships with staff that encourage a sense of belonging is critical for them.
  • University services and staff such as student welfare and counselling, academics personal tutors, work-place mentors, peer-buddies and peer role models, are vital across the student lifecycle and key to the completion of their degrees.
  • Students value the support of family and friends over the course of their degree programme.
  • Students are largely positive about those university services that are specifically designed to support the needs of students from under-represented backgrounds.
  • Students would like to see more social spaces available on campus where they can meet, interact, study, relax with friends and form friendships away from commercial settings and environments.

We hope that current students, academic staff, and colleagues working in the area of WP will be inspired by this exhibition and ultimately our research findings. One voice that is seldom heard in this debate around widening access and social mobility is that of students from WP backgrounds and in particular those who stay the course and overcome barriers or difficulties on their student journey. To quote one of our ‘successful students’ who took part in our research:

“It’s nice to feel that you have a voice as a student and that your opinions are valued”.

It is vital that universities actively engage with students from all backgrounds, and listen to the stories of those who successfully complete their degree courses. This knowledge can then be used to improve the support universities provide across the student lifecycle, and ensure that the next-generation of students from under-represented backgrounds benefit from their peers’ experiences.


Article reproduced with permission from the Higher Education Academy. The original article, including references, is available from the HEA blog.

Read more about Widening Participation at Brunel University London, or explore our Department of Education's courses and expertise.