A Participatory Study into the Student Experience of First Year Under-Represented Students in a UK University
Farenga, Stéphane Antoine
This thesis explores the experience of ten undergraduate students at Southeastern (a UK post-1992 university) as they transition into higher education (HE) during their first year. The research focuses on the widening participation (WP) agenda at Southeastern and across the sector, which aims to address inequalities in student outcomes and experience. Specifically, this research concentrates on students considered to be under-represented in HE, based on their socio-economic backgrounds, because local and national WP research point to under-represented students encountering difficulties during their transition compared to their peers, including higher non-continuation rates and lower attainment. This research helps address these inequalities by filling a knowledge gap at Southeastern concerning students’ early university experience and offering practice-based recommendations to facilitate student-staff partnerships, which will result in tailored activity that better supports under-represented students’ success. A Participatory Pedagogy approach, underpinned by student partnership and co-participatory principles, provides a unique opportunity to explore the experience of under-represented students by engaging participants and providing a platform to share powerful testimonies of their experiences in HE. This co-participatory process ensured the research avoided a potential deficit-model construct by rebalancing the researcher-participant relationship and encouraging participants to co-generate aspects of the research. It was paired with an innovative artful inquiry methodology and collage making method to capture deep, reflective data on participants’ transition into Southeastern. Participants’ experiences are analysed in relation to a conceptual framework, drawing on Bourdieusian notions, a capability approach and transitional models, which provides a more nuanced understanding of their experience at Southeastern by considering their behaviour and agency in relation to their habitus, values, capabilities and conceptions of transition. It also influences this research’s contributions to future practice by informing discussion on how to support under-represented students at this institution and across the sector. This framework also accounts for the role neoliberalism plays in shaping students’ performativity and transitional experiences, which little previous research on the student experience has sought to do. Findings reveal that neoliberal attitudes and actions permeate participants’ decision-making in accessing HE, which when considered in relation to Bourdieusian notions of social gravity and illusio, demonstrate these students exhibit a feel for the game that other WP research has not accounted for. However, participants then endured difficult transitional experiences during their first term at Southeastern, mainly due to mismatches in expectations. Although participants’ experience improved as they formed friendship and support groups, this period highlights a form of institutional misrecognition of their habitus and reinforces the deficit-model approach that is prevalent in institutional practices designed to support the student experience. A capability approach analysis of findings explains how students’ choice, aspiration and agency in accessing and performing in HE can be reclaimed away from deficit-model discourses and instead positioned around what under-represented students value, such as financial independence and personalised opportunities to develop relevant skills and careers. This re-conception of the student experience towards a more individual understanding of needs and desired outcomes is a crucial step in providing more meaningful support for under-represented students. The research’s findings challenge institutional practitioners, leaders and researchers to think differently about the early experience of under-represented students in HE. Southeastern is encouraged to adopt a number of recommendations to address the transitional challenges participants faced, including an innovative, step-by-step guide for staff-student partnerships to develop meaningful forms of support, as well as specific practices, such as embedding the formation of peer groups and more focused career planning during induction. Finally, researchers across the sector seeking to carry out their own investigations of under-represented students’ experiences can learn from this research’s adoption of Participatory Pedagogy, both conceptually and practically, to uncover important reflections and experiences in their environments. The research suggests entering into co-participatory partnerships with under-represented students will develop practices that support individualised transitions into university, while ensuring students feel valued and retain ownership of their own HE experience.
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