Dr Yaz Iyabo Osho, Programme Leader in Enterprise and Small Business Development, GSM London, writes about her role as a programme leader "in a truly WP HE provider," which has motivated her "to embrace value added measures in the curriculum alongside supporting institutional-wide strategies."
Whilst the widening participation (WP) agenda has been prevalent in HE since the late 1990s, it has taken on increased significance since the tuition fee raise seven years ago. A recent study by the UCL Institute of Education has indicated that whilst the £9,000 price tag for a year’s tuition may have not have deterred some students from university, young people from poorer backgrounds in England continue to be deterred. The main reason for this is the fear of incurring student loan debt.
It is important to note that WP in higher education not only relates to increasing the number of students participating in higher education from low-income backgrounds, it also encompasses students who are:
- Care leavers
- Living with a disability
- From families where there is no previous history of parental higher education
- From under-represented groups (e.g. Black Minority Ethnic students)
- Returning to learning as mature students
- From low participation in higher education neighbourhoods (POLAR 2 and 3)
People who meet one or more of these categories are statistically less likely to go on to higher education.
Looking WP and BME groups specifically, these groups have lower levels of retention and achievement in HE compared to other ethnic groups. In June, OFFA reported that the non-continuation rate for black students is almost 1.5 times higher than it is for white and Asian students. It is therefore important to look at the issue of student retention and achievement in a way that does not homogenise difference and to strictly address the differential outcomes of specific groups in HEIs.
Black students face specific barriers to success when in higher education which clearly transcends the issues of tuition fees. Developing strategies and sharing best practice to reduce this gap in attainment and retention is central to supporting the WP agenda for this group. OFFA’s guidance on addressing the BME attainment gap urges HEIs to “disaggregate between different ethnic groups rather than treating BME students as one homogenous group” which is agreeable because of the differential student outcomes and varying student experience of ethnic groups.
My role as a programme leader in a truly WP HE provider, has motivated me to embrace value added measures in the curriculum alongside supporting institutional-wide strategies. In particular, I have witnessed the importance of embedded practices as well as collaborative measures to help engage largely non-traditional student bodies. The majority of the students I work alongside are mature students (86%), 94% are BAME, and many are also the first generation in their family to attend university which makes their academic journeys truly inspirational.
These students tend also to be from low participation neighbourhoods and tend to combine caring responsibilities, employment with full time study adding further challenges to complete their studies.
In light of these challenges and barriers, it is therefore important to create a meaningful and relatable experience which fosters the ownership of the learning process. Encouraging the usefulness of students’ lived experience and highlighting their strengths, not seeks to empower non-traditional university students, but also counters the deficit approach that is implicit within some widening participation debates.
Institutionally, a strengths-based approach has been encouraged together with contextualised personal tutoring and life coaching which focuses on meaningfully building up the learner. There is also an encouragement of inclusive teaching techniques and assets building which is incredibly important for non-traditional students’ student experience and journey.
Leading the BSc. Enterprise and Small Business Development degree programme, I have found this to be an important space to implant a discourse of opportunity by encouraging students to attend industry specific events to build up networking capital, network with other students and embrace their skills. Recognising personal qualities and prior learning experiences can enable non-traditional students to flourish academically and personally which can have far-reaching consequences. For instance, it has been shown that some mature university students enter into their degree programme with the intention of being a role model to their family and community.
Beyond this, it is important to embrace diversity and the distinctiveness of non-traditional learners within the curriculum itself to provide reference points and further contextualisation in encouraging deeper learning. Examples of this include embedding case studies that align with the entrepreneurs’ background and local context, including achievements of BME entrepreneurs within the curriculum; inviting co-ethnic entrepreneurs to speak to students on campus to provide inspiration; allowing students space to share their own experiences and incorporating this within class discussions and advertising co-ethnic external events where possible to engage students on their entrepreneurial journey.
I recently presented at the co-organised GSM London and University of Birmingham’s EEUK event on Embedded Enterprise and its Institutional Impact and found this to be a very useful learning and networking experience. It is imperative that academics and practitioners alike continue to work on effective strategies and interventions which engage students from widening participation backgrounds to increase levels of engagement and feelings of belonging. What is more, ensuring that the non-traditional students who enter into university actually complete their studies and achieve the outcomes they aimed to achieve makes their journey all the more worthwhile.