Rod Brazier, Vice Principal – Teaching Excellence and Student Success, St Patrick’s College London

I was recently invited by the European Access Network - the only European-wide, non-governmental organisation for widening participation in higher education - to host and facilitate a keynote discussion at their annual conference.

The subject? The unenviable and, perhaps, incalculable exploration of 'How the equity problems in HEI can be solved at international, national and institutional levels'.

I drew together a range of experts to participate in a pre-conference workshop which consisted of widening participation practitioners, teachers, career development professionals, students and researchers from a range of diverse institutions across the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, Australia, Puerto Rico, China and India. The global perspectives at the forefront of the equity problem were surprisingly consistent. It appears that, aside from some specific local issues, the majority of problems faced within the education industry are commonplace - and they need to be solved.

It is evident that a host of problems abound for students from low-income families. They are: less likely to go to university; more likely to drop out of a course they enrol in; likely to earn less than counterparts with middle-class parents; more likely to have an unsatisfactory experience with regards to their teaching and access to teachers, and they are far less able to engage in their learning due to the increasing need for technology and the digital poverty which prevails within those demographic areas.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities state that 'Equity is about fairness; it ensures that each person gets what he or she needs. To effectively educate today's students, higher education must focus on both equity and quality—to make the most empowering forms of college learning available to all students.' But what can educational leaders and teachers do to improve the situation for students at a time when Government priorities are elsewhere?

The carefully selected group of educators assembled to answer this questions agreed that five key areas need focus, as follows;

1) Student's 'real-world problems' need understanding and abatement

Many institutions focus on migrating, international students. Those students are often the first in family to attend a further education programme and, consequently, their families do not know how to support them. Furthermore, many students are employed elsewhere – often working long, unsociable hours. They can be carers, with young families and competing demands on their schedule. Many do not primarily speak the language of their host nation and thus language barriers can have a detrimental effect upon both migrating and home students.

There are a host of potential solutions to these problems. Institutions can seek to offer parent/family workshops to outline expectations and to inform families; they can seek an in-depth understanding of each individual student's personal circumstances (home difficulties, financial pressures, employment, prevalence of children at home) and see how they can flex together, particulatly over timetables. It is also vitally important to educate all students on the importance of cultural awareness and the benefits of diversity within education and upon future lives and careers. Finally, and perhaps most crucially within this section, it is encumbent upon institutions not to overburden their students with materials, assessments and expectations – a light touch, alongside a gradually-built approach is optimal.

2) Disadvantaged students from widening participation backgrounds feel unsupported

This is largely due to: a lack of ‘belonging’ to an institution; a lack of successful peers whom are ‘like them’; the presence of academic role models who are from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds; poor information from institutions on whom to speak to or where to go; and, the heavy burden and ‘unknown quantity’ of academia.

To counteract these problems institutions should spend time and resources to: consider mental health, counselling and welfare approaches to better understand an individual student's mindset; to offer 1:1 personal support through personal tutors, mentors and coaches; to provide student role models, ambassadors and peer mentors – particularly in the first year of study; to ensure students belong to their discipline/faculty, and to teach them to understand the problems faced within that discipline – this will make them feel part of their new ‘industry’. Finally, it is crucial that institutions train and encourage staff to: develop meaningful interactions with students in order to build relationships, to develop knowledge, confidence and identity; and to be understanding and compassionate.

3) Covid 19 has exacerbated the already prevalent need for suitable, accessible virtual learning platforms

Several challenges exist here: many academics still have very little experience with technology; online strategies are being designed and implemented too quickly; student interaction is compromised through poor design and execution; digital poverty and digital exclusion is prevalent; and the sharing of ‘best practice’ has not been as common within the educational field as it might be.

This importance of this subject is ever-increasing and the detailed discussion of it is outside the scope of this article. However, the expert panel advocated the following examples of 'digital' best practice:

  • Spend time training staff; but place pedagogy before technology in order to: provide students with feedback; build communities; allow students opportunities to practice their learning; create pressure-free informal assessments.
  • Allow staff and students the opportunities to explore technology, to take risks, to experiment. And reduce micro-management.
  • Promote strategies which allow collaboration and disseminate the results of research amongst the field.
  • Use digital mentors to aide community engagement. Ideally these would be a blend of students and staff.
  • Offer resources which help students to plan how they’ll be successful: online diary planners; time management resources; training on basic software packages
  • Differentiate the pedagogic offering so students are engaged through a variety of mediums: f2f, live, recorded, external tools such as padlet, kahoot, mentimeter, vevox
  • Explore the possibility of loaning/giving/selling devices to students

4) Soft skills need to be developed through a holistic education

There is an intersection which exists between what institutions offer by way of 'skills development, the wide range of skills sought by employers and the skills which students actually develop through the lifetime of their course. Uncertainty over what institutions are preparing students for, and therefore how they should do so, is a ubiquitous problem which needs consideration in strategic planning and programme development. Additionally, some institutions feel beholdent to employer-partners who say they want diversity within their organisations but cannot express why! Many employers have also reduced their participation in experiential education and work-based learning schemes due to covid and budgetary constraints. This leaves the student; who has increasingly sought out tangible returns on their investment; to conclude that the value of ‘skills development’ within education is not fully recognised by the providers of their educational experience.

There are a range of experiential teaching approaches which can aide the development of soft skills; work-based learning, active learning, authentic learning, internships, and service learning - which has the positive consequence of giving something back to external communities. These all provide students with opportunities to develop holistically. However, the design and implementation of such approaches are crucial to the outcome. Students should be given autonomy to lead their own learning, to work with peers both inside the classroom and outside the confines of timetables and walls, to focus not only on assessments but on engaging, enjoyable projects; and to act reflexively and reflectively within their learning. In turn, teachers should not feel their job begins and ends with 'teaching towards assessment' - it must be far more holistic than that.

5) Engagement levels are a major prognostic for student success

The problems encircling engagement levels are heightened by fewer non-traditional, widening participation students engaging with extra curricula activities. There has also been a dramatic rise in commuter students (exacerbated by covid-19 ‘remoteness’). Many student cohorts express feeling disjointed – negatively affecting social constructionism and constructivism of communities and individuals. These factors result in those students from disadvantaged backgrounds having disproportionately low attendance and success rates, which, too often, is the consequence of teaching which is formulaic, didactic and passive.

To counteract these problems, the expert 'access' panel offered the following potential solutions: institutions should continue to ascertain best approaches to offer extra-curricula activities, cultural exchanges, sport; they should offer enrichment classes, workshops, experiential trips, in addition to facilitating professional exchange programmes and student research/conference opportunities. Holistic timetables, which offer classes, online activities, experiential learning and drop-in sessions (flexible and self-built by student, where possible) should be created, and it is vital to consider the complete student journey and ‘touchpoints’ to ensure the message is one of ‘belonging’ from start of journey. Finally, institutions should put pedagogy first – students must receive the education they need and educators should continue to innovate and evolve in order to meet the ever-changing demands the world places upon them, their programmes and their graduates.

In essence, if we want to level the playing field, we need to scrutinise the existing rules to ensure access is broadened. We need to get to know the players to understand their lives and mindsets, and we need to offer bespoke training packages to personalise learning. Only through precision planning can those disadvantaged students begin to feel truly supported.

Rod Brazier, Vice Principal – Teaching Excellence and Student Success, St Patrick’s College London

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