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Widening access and participation – the transformation universities need to embrace

This article was first published on Times Higher Education.

Jonathan Barton, education specialist, and Tamsin Scobell, people and talent consultant and well-being specialist at PA Consulting discuss how additional mental health support, diverse course portfolios and smart admissions processes can all help improve retention and attainment for minority cohorts.

When the Office for Students released data on achievement gaps for black and minority ethnic students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds in 2019, its director for fair access and participation Chris Millward said that universities would need to make a “step change” in how they addressed these issues.

It is not just about attainment – students from widening participation backgrounds (broadly covering those from low-income households, first in family to attend university, students with disabilities or leaving care, ethnic minorities and mature students) often have additional mental health challenges that are not being addressed. Further research from the OfS reveals that in 2017-18, only 53 per cent of black students with mental health conditions achieved a first or a 2.1, compared with 77 per cent of all students declaring an issue.

Jonathan argues that how universities respond to these twin agendas will require the largest transformation in the higher education sector in the past 20 years. “It affects everything, from who universities recruit to what and how they teach students” he explains, “despite huge investments in outreach, it’s clear that there are still underlying issues.”

Tamsin explains why supporting the student journey, in particular supporting good mental health and well-being, needs to be at the forefront of how universities diversify and support their student intake. “We all know that there is a huge concern in general around student mental health, but my research shows that those from widening participation backgrounds often have additional personal challenges and fewer protective factors. With emotional support, universities can help these students build greater resilience and increase retention – but emotional support is not always effectively provided, despite its absence being given as the key reason for dropping out.”

Transition is a trigger point where support from the university can make all the difference. Scobell believes that emotional support from family, friends and trusted university contacts is important during transition, but that it needs to be backed up by institutional support. “There is a journey through which emotional resilience is developed. It starts with emotional support, this leads to a positive mindset which enhances coping strategies and in turn builds greater emotional resilience,” she adds. Universities “can and should support this student journey to emotional resilience” and adopt a “proactive whole-systems approach to positive student transitions and well-being”. In the first instance, everyone should be exposed to early mental health and well-being awareness and training preventative interventions, and timely enhanced second stage support should be available for those who are struggling, such as counselling. In addition, universities should address the root causes of pressure on students and the university culture – for example, are exams all falling in the same week, is IT support sufficient and is a well-being lens being placed on all processes at the university?

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The process by which universities recruit students has a huge influence on their ability to retain them. Diversifying course portfolios is one way to introduce more developmental paths into university life and better reflect the needs of a more diverse student body. Barton adds: “Some students are put off applying for university for a range factors, including financial and time constraints. Through offering apprenticeships and foundation degrees universities can increase the routes into higher education and help bridge the gap between sixth form and undergraduate study. This approach would enable universities to achieve their growth targets and maintain attainment standards whilst improving access in line with the OfS requirements.” Smart admissions approaches can enable universities to link alumni with applicants from similar backgrounds so students know what they can expect at each institution before they arrive. Consistent marketing is another consideration, says Barton: “This is often done centrally, so there’s a focus on representing a diverse and inclusive student body, but then you get to halls or colleges and the atmosphere and image is at odds – there’s a disconnect between the image that’s marketed and the reality on the ground.”

Data has a role to play in helping universities identify where there are gaps in their offers. A BAME student intake of 38 per cent in one university and 1 per cent for another institution should ring alarm bells, says Barton. “Where in the process are you losing applicants? Is it in recruitment, conversion, admissions, enrolment? Student groups are not homogenous, and the diversity of each potential cohort needs to be replicated in the university’s recruitment and admissions approach.” These insights can also help admissions departments and course leaders be proactive about guidance earlier in the process – they can flag up support requirements, where someone might benefit from a buddy, and help to personalise messaging so students feel more included.

Targeted support for widening participation students can help to mitigate mental health issues in the longer term, which is particularly pertinent given the surge in demand for counselling services in higher education. “If you address the triggers, you can often avoid more serious mental health issue developing down the line,” adds Barton. In future, we may see more widespread pedagogical and curriculum reform so that universities are more inclusive by design, but for now, responding to the needs of students from all backgrounds to ensure positive student experiences and higher well-being has to be the top priority.

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