Access and participation is about more than courses

When we commissioned some research to test some hypotheses about student mental health and loneliness, we noticed some other stories lurking in the data.

Home students were around 33% more likely to take part in sports clubs than international students. There was a significant participation gap in almost all types of student activity for BaME students. Students undertaking paid part time work were much less likely to be taking part, and there were similar gaps for those whose were disabled, those whose parents had not attended university, and those who commuted to campus.

Put bluntly, students’ unions and the activities that they facilitate have an Access and Participation problem. And too few are doing anything about it.

Student leadership

What we’re not talking about here is the role that students and their representatives play in the general access and participation debate in the sector. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that our shameful BaME attainment gap would be getting the attention that is were it not for NUS’ Amatey Doku and Shakira Martin and the hundreds of SU officers and reps chipping away years of denial, obfuscation and excuses (“well, it’s because of international students”) that characterised the discourse in the earlier part of the decade.

It’s student organisations themselves – and the activities they offer – that are the problem. There are all sorts of reasons why extra-curricular experiences are easy to ignore in the access and participation debate. Students’ unions, which facilitate most of the opportunities on offer, are rightly autonomous. The activities are difficult to categorise – what is participation? What is “success”? And the autonomy thing usually means that students’ unions have scant access to the characteristics data that would tell the stories, which also means that providers and their regulator can’t access the data on who’s taking part either.

So what?

But this stuff matters. There’s all sorts of evidence that taking part in things is good for employment prospects and academic achievement. There’s our research that suggests that participation in activities is closely related to positive wellbeing. And even for its own social sake, doing things that are not strictly course related is an important and pretty much accepted part of the higher education “experience”.

In the folklore, university is a place where social capital is acquired. The data suggests there is a clear risk that this does not happen for some students. It’s not hard to surmise that bonding social capital (where students fund those like them) is much easier for some students to acquire than others; and bridging social capital requires real effort to develop on the part of universities and SUs, particularly for anyone not young, white, full time and affluent.

Why is it that some types of student aren’t participating? There are lots of reasons for the gaps. Duncan Exley, author of the excellent fortcoming “The End of Aspiration”, put it well on Wonkhe when he said:

The belief that a degree is the key to a good career also makes it less likely that first-generation students will take part in extra-curricular activities. (This is also partly because they can’t afford the cost or work part-time because their family can’t supplement an inadequate maintenance loan). Many have been told by parents and others not to waste time on sports and other activities when they could be studying. The consequences of this often don’t become apparent until the student has graduated and is being turned down for jobs because they don’t have a rounded CV.

The same old stories

Over the years involved in SUs, I’ve heard repeated suggestions that certain types of student simply don’t want to take part. But buried in our loneliness research we din’t find much evidence of that, rather we found stories of seemingly impenetrable barriers so many of which will be familiar to access and participation professionals. Some for example simply couldn’t afford to take part:

In the past, my family did not support my activities as they thought it would hinder me from my studies. Working alongside studying due to the financial limitations of my situation and the cost of living in London means I have not been able to fully immerse myself in the student experience.

Some found the culture of clubs and societies to be a problem:

Lots of sports societies tend to have a drinking and party culture which meant because I don’t enjoy those events frequently I felt I couldn’t join

Some lacked the confidence:

I always felt like I wasn’t good enough at sport/hobbies to join the societies. I think this stems from the fact that many people who are educated in private/independent school also are able to invest in their hobbies/extra curricular is provided for them at a much higher standard than in many state schools.

And others found nothing that really appealed to them:

I have not found activities that that I would really like to be more involved in like, Afro dance, dancehall etc.

What’s abundantly clear is that many of the issues surrounding class, barriers, comfort, and aspiration are just as applicable to extra-curricular student activities as they are to academic programmes. Students’ unions, sports departments, volunteering units and other services organising such activity should be under real pressure to consider the issues of student participation from an A&P perspective. They need data, expertise, resource, and even regulation.

Act now!

It shouldn’t be that difficult. First, we need to fix that data issue. For example, if Jisc can find the expertise to make university and electoral roll databases talk, it really ought to be asked to turn its attention to this issue.

Next, we need SUs, sports departments, volunteering units and others involving or employing students to be required to have an access and participation agenda all of their own.

They’ll all need some resource. Anecdotally, one of the unintended (yet ironically absolutely intended) consequences of the need of providers to focus both on the data and on impact is that A&P spend is being ripped out of little “extra curricular” schemes because OfS doesn’t measure this stuff, and the data isn’t there. We would be wise not to fix that with the telescope upside down.

We need some expertise here too. There are some really sharp minds working in access and participation, who understand causes and motivations and deficit models and discrimination, who ought to be asked to turn their attention to what’s wrong with the Rugby club or stopping commuters singing in the Glee choir. Plenty of people want to change the culture of autonomous sports clubs, societies, volunteering schemes and student staff opportunities, but it’s hard stuff. A little corner of the impact and evidence exchange would be a start.

The active and enthusiastic engagement of the thousands of students that lead sports clubs, societies, volunteer groups and enterprise schemes would also have benefits for the formal A&P agenda. Too often student engagement in A&P consists of a student officer sitting on a committee – tokenism that many providers are belatedly finding falls well short of OfS’ more stringent guidance. Some involve students that A&P is aimed at, and so they should. But so many things that students miss out on are run and controlled by student leaders across the student community. Not only would them understanding their groups’ own gaps transform those activities, but it would also make efforts to improve participation and success rates on academic programmes much easier to implement.

But above all, we need the regulator to notice – and act. In the early months of his chairship at the Office for Students, Michael Barber argued that OfS would “not forget … the wider experiences of a higher education which go far beyond the course pursued and include art, drama, music, sport, volunteering, political activity and, not least, enduring friendships”. The danger is that without some focus, too many students that really ought to be making the most of their higher education experience will continue to be forgotten.

3 responses to “Access and participation is about more than courses

  1. Brilliant read – powerfully articulates the challenges of Students’ Union’s including student leaders, in navigating access and participation among the richly eclectic communities.

    Personally, I believe partnership between institutes and SUs is crucial for evolving the student experience, and if now co-creation and meaningful student partnership is beginning to be translated, then this must be emulated through the likes of data sharing (among other aspects) to reinforce effective partnership, foster trust and strech the parameters of how institutions are regulated to ensure it is underpinned by learners’ holistic experience and engagement based outputs.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Agreed! – a strong message for student unions and institutions to work more in partnership to get the crucial message about engaging in extracurricular activities across to students, especially those from WP backgrounds, in order them to be able to compete for jobs more effectively!

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