Building students' self-awareness in untraditional settings. New insights from leading thinkers 14: GSM London.

Debi Hayes, Provost and Mark Fuller, Head of Strategic Communications at GSM London show how alternative providers are reaching students more traditional providers might miss in the next essay from the Where next widening participation and fair access? New insights from leading thinkers collection jointly published by Brightside and the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). 

What’s the alternative? Building students’ self-awareness in untraditional settings

Debi Hayes and Mark Fuller

One of the Government’s stated aims in the current round of higher education reforms is to ‘make it easier to set up high quality new universities to give students more choice’.1 For the most part, the focus of policy – and debate – has been on potential new entrants to the higher education sector. Those of us alternative providers that have been around for some time could be forgiven for feeling neglected. However, the attention given to potential new providers does create an opportunity to ask some questions about the diversity of provision needed to ensure a greater diversity of students.

Despite being over 40-years old, GSM London’s experience puts us in a strong position to offer new ideas. We are committed to extending opportunities to a distinctive population otherwise under-served by traditional higher education institutions. Over 55 per cent of our undergraduate student body is over the age of 30 and around 90 per cent are drawn from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. In the vast majority of cases, our students arrive following significant time away from formal education, or having had unsatisfactory experiences in the recent past.

Student characteristics

Our experience of working with widening participation students at scale has allowed us to identify some common characteristics.

1. Widening participation students tend to be unfamiliar with what others might regard as the basic processes and language of higher education.

2. Many have direct experience of dealing with prejudice, stereotyping or other forms of discrimination. Assets like resilience and the ability to survive difficult situations and manoeuvre multiple realities are also in high abundance – although often made manifest through bravado and a reluctance to fit easily into institutional structures.

3. Our students are often tentative and uncertain about entering higher education, a fear factor that in some cases keeps them from sharing with their families and personal networks the fact that they are studying.

Our students tend to be predominantly driven by a desire to improve their own employment prospects – as is probably the case with the vast majority of students at all types of institutions. However, many also point towards a wish to develop their own confidence and to become stronger role models in their families and communities.

In aggregate then, we find ourselves working with a body of students who may lack self-esteem and confidence but are goal-orientated and focused on self-improvement. This means that one of our primary challenges is to validate our students’ sense of self-worth and build their self-confidence.

A distinctive approach

In recognition of this, we are developing a distinctive approach that seeks to acknowledge and build on the personal characteristics and life experiences of our students, rather than to focus on the factors in which they may otherwise be seen to be deficient. We strive to ensure that our input at all points of the student journey is built around the student’s own attributes, rather than a prescriptive perception of ways in which they need to comply or develop. This strengths-led approach to education is a departure from the traditional deficit-reduction model of higher education.

Student recruitment

It begins with our approach to student recruitment. While a small number of students come to us through UCAS, we recognise the demographic groups most under-served by higher education are more likely to be reached outside of the formal process. We therefore operate a sophisticated direct marketing operation that integrates outreach with face-to-face and digital information, advice and guidance. Through a variety of means, we develop a presence within the communities of our target students and engage with them on their terms about higher education in general and what we can offer in particular.

Innovations in teaching and learning

Meaningful widening participation is about much more than encouraging under-represented groups into higher education. A learning experience unaligned with the sensibilities and experiences of the student cohort can serve only to exacerbate a lack of self-worth. This is why we have put just as much effort into innovating around our pedagogy as we have around our recruitment techniques. In short, we have worked closely with our validating partner, Plymouth University, to combine academic rigour with a more bespoke approach to teaching, learning and assessment.

We have carried out a radical overhaul of our curriculum so that our course portfolio, the ways in which material is taught, and the means by which work is assessed are geared towards the personal learning styles of our students. In practice this means there is much more active learning in classrooms and a concerted effort to move away from ‘chalk and talk’. Employability and industry engagement is also embedded into modules. For example, visits to working industry facilities are increasingly taking the place of lectures and seminars. Perhaps most importantly, assessments that measure students’ learning in traditional academic terms are being replaced by techniques that capture how students are able to apply their knowledge and understanding on their own terms. So, where appropriate, we are introducing opportunities for students to submit, for example, blogs and video presentations rather than to sit exams or write essays.

We are also developing plans for students to develop and run crowd-funding programmes in place of dissertations. The intention in all of these innovations is to allow students to earn degrees – and to demonstrate what they have learned – in ways that resonate with their own life-experiences and reflect the attributes that they bring with them. Indeed, these personal attributes are often the type of soft skills that employers look for.

Retention challenge

Even with this distinct approach, student retention is a challenge. Our observation is that the factors that influence students’ propensity to drop out are not fully reflected in established benchmarking categories. For instance, relatively low parental income and state school attendance are not necessarily indications that significant interventions are needed. Likewise, the participation of local areas (POLAR) classifications can mask the diversity of circumstance found within geographic locations – particularly in London.

In light of this, we have started a project to profile our students using a much more granular level of risk indicators. Informed by student profiling models that have long been used in the United States, these indicators incorporate well recognised factors, such as ethnicity, postcode and familial background, alongside a set of life experience indicators, including the presence of dependants and hours spent in paid employment. Initially intended to provide greater awareness about individual students for personal tutors and advisers, there is potential for wider application as a tailored analytics framework. Augmented with on-course risk scores generated by patterns of engagement (for example, attendance, timely submissions of work and library use) this model has the potential to enable personalised interventions that support student continuation.

Our experience suggests that people from under-represented groups are more likely to find benefit in an experience that reinforces the value of their own personal attributes.

Simply compelling a greater range of people into systems that comply with long-established ideas of what higher education looks and feels like is likely to be met with indifference at best and outright alienation at worse. The debate about how best to expand opportunities should be less about the value of alternative providers and more about the need for alternative provision.

1 Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘New universities to deliver choice and opportunity for students’, Press release, 16 May 2016 https://www.gov.uk/government/ news/new-universities-to-deliver-choice-and-opportunity-for-students