By Dr Karen Campbell, Research Fellow in Educational Research and Evaluation
In the context of widening participation in higher education, the question of what it means to be ‘university ready’ is an apposite one. This is especially the case for students from areas of disadvantage and ‘first-generation’ students who are nationally among the least likely to be retained through to degree completion. The dominant discourse on successful transitions into and through university relies on the ability of the student to adapt to the institution. This view is challenged, however, by those who express concern regarding the ability of ‘non-traditional’ students to successfully navigate major transitions without overt mechanisms and interventions. For students from diverse backgrounds, therefore, there is a need for planned and deliberate support to underpin the transition to university.
In this post, I explore the efficacy of a unique widening participation model based on immersing learners in the university environment before entry. I contend that, in the context of equitable transitions, university readiness is best facilitated when learners experience studying HE level qualifications within a university setting, whilst still at school.
The post draws on my recent publication, Building capabilities for higher education prior to entry.
What is the Capability Approach?
First articulated by the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, the Capability Approach (CA) challenges Human Capital Theory’s narrow focus on the economic value of education – that education is relevant in so far as it develops skills and knowledge as an investment in the productivity of individuals as workers. Based on human development theory, instead, the Capability Approach focuses on what a person can do and be, in making meaningful choices from a range of options; hence, having the freedom to choose a life they have reason to value. The central question asked by the Capability Approach is not, ‘How much in the way of resources is the learner able to command?’ It is, instead, ‘What is the learner able to do and be?’
A deficit view?
The Capability Approach is not, however, without its critics. Pogge (2002), for example, suggests that the theory stigmatises those with fewer or less valued capabilities. Some suggest the approach positions learners in a deficit model when it is used to analyse the situations of ‘deprived people’ and create interventions that give them access to necessary resources to make choices (Alkire, 2002).
However, the Capability Approach recognises individual heterogeneity and diversity by drawing attention to group disparities, embracing human agency and participation and acknowledging that different people, cultures and societies may have different values and aspirations. As such, it cannot be described as a deficit approach.
Capabilities and widening participation
Several authors have made use of the capability framework for researching education which has led to the development of lists of capabilities for HE. However, there are few examples within the research involving learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hence, the importance of this study which proposes a capabilities list for equitable transitions to university in the Scottish HE context.
The Advanced Higher Hub
Many Glasgow schools struggle to provide a full range of Advanced Higher subjects to their final year pupils for reasons including small pupil numbers, timetabling constraints and lack of teacher expertise or resources. Glasgow Caledonian University established the Advanced Higher Hub as an access model in 2013. The aim was to provide a year-long immersion and transition programme to deliver Advanced Highers (HE level study) which are typically taught in school, in a university setting.
The Hub targets S6 (final year) school pupils from local secondary schools which fall within the 20% most deprived local areas and so which typically have lower than average HE progression rates. The Hub is located on the university campus and school pupils have Associate Student status and access to all university facilities. Pupils spend up to 18 hours per week studying Advanced Highers within the university learning environment and can then use their Advanced Higher qualifications to apply to HE institutions across the UK and beyond. In addition to providing fair access to Advanced Highers, the rationale for the Hub was that school pupils would become familiar with the university learning environment, which in turn would support their progression to and retention within HE.
Capabilities instilled at the Hub
My research study followed 30 students who participated in the programme. It involved in-depth interviews about learners’ Hub experience and its impact on their subsequent progression to university. Of the participants, 87% of the study sample came from the 40% most deprived areas of Scotland (as measured by the SIMD), while 67% of participants came from the 20% most deprived areas. A large proportion of participants (70% of the study sample), were the first-generation to attend university. Interview data was mapped to Wilson-Strydom’s Framework for Equitable Transitions to University (2016), which is based on the Capability Approach. This analysis shows that the Hub experience developed the following transitional capabilities:
- Practical reason: Being able to make well-reasoned, informed, critical, independent and reflective choices about post-school study.
- Knowledge and imagination: Having the academic grounding for chosen university subjects, being able to develop and apply methods of critical thinking and imagination.
- Learning disposition: Having curiosity and a desire for learning, having the learning skills required for university and being an active inquirer (questioning disposition).
- Social relations and social networks: Being able to participate in groups for learning, working with diverse others to solve problems or complete tasks; being able to form networks of friendships for learning support and leisure.
- Respect, dignity and recognition: Having respect for oneself and for others, and receiving respect from others, being treated with dignity; not being devalued or devaluing others’ because of one’s gender, social class, religion or race.
- Emotional health: Not being subject to anxiety or fear that diminishes learning; having confidence in one’s ability to learn.
Identifying as a university student
A key finding from my research is that when capabilities for equitable transitions are fostered before entry, learners identify as university students. When asked to describe what factors contributed to this identity, participants described travelling to and from school or home to university and not having to wear the school uniform. They remarked that teaching and learning were more akin to tutorials. They frequently mentioned being treated as adults, as students, with respect and being allowed more responsibility. They felt that they were trusted to study. They enjoyed having student cards, meeting new people, being surrounded by like-minded people, mingling with current students and using the university facilities. Becoming an independent learner was the most cited factor responsible for the development of a learner identity as an HE student.
Immersion for impact
Findings from this study suggest that a model based on immersing school pupils within the HE learning environment prior to entry can serve as an enabler for capability development and equitable transitions. The outcome of developing capabilities for HE was a transitional experience which was smoother and more manageable than it might otherwise have been. This was facilitated by a shift in learner identity from that of school ‘pupil’ to HE ‘student.’ The result was an ‘achieved functioning’ (to use the language of the Capability Approach) as a university student. To this extent, the immersive model in operation at the Hub can be seen not just to have widened participation to HE for learners from target schools; but to have advanced it.