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Capital gains: How school pupils become university students

Karen Macfarlane considers the investment needed in social capital that enables students to succeed
This article is more than 5 years old

Karen MacFarlane is a research fellow at Glasgow Caledonian University

Widening participation in higher education remains a challenging objective as learners from our most advantaged communities continue to benefit disproportionately in terms of securing a place at university.

Nowhere is this more significant than in Scotland right now. Eighteen year olds from Scotland’s 20% most affluent communities are more than four times as likely to enter university as those from the 20% most deprived communities. For those from advantaged backgrounds, making the decision to go to university is the norm. This ingrained expectation means that there is no single moment of decision making – participation is already assumed, and the only choices to be made concern which degree and which university.

In contrast, students from non-traditional backgrounds experience transition differently simply because they have little or no understanding of how universities work. They can experience a disconnect from the academic approach in terms of the language skills and the critical, impartial, balanced and distanced stance required in academia.

Demystifying academic culture

For many, it can be like learning a foreign language – for some, even to the point of graduation. There is a need for institutions to make the implicit explicit, demystify academic culture and simplify the associated language. This is not about explaining and simplifying subject-based terminology – it’s also about what Bourdieu would call the “habitus” of the university.

Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) has a long tradition of providing educational opportunities for all regardless of background. Its Advanced Higher Hub is unique within the HE sector: S6 pupils study part-time at GCU and part-time at school. They become associate students of the university to study up to three advanced highers (equivalent to A levels) on GCU’s campus.

Affectionately known as “hubbers”, evidence show that these students thrive. Armed with their student cards, they access all university amenities including the VLE, library, laboratories, students’ association and sporting facilities. They are immersed in university life, removing many of the associated social barriers, before making that next crucial step into HE.

Impact on performance

The impact on performance is remarkable: In 2017 Advanced Higher Hub pass rate was 92% which compares with a sector pass rate of 79% for the eight equivalent advanced highers. In addition, in the same year pupils studying business management, English, history, and physics achieved 100% pass rates.

Findings from a recent study of former Hub pupils who have progressed to universities UK-wide found that:

  • 70% cited their development as independent learners
  • 83% spoke of their increased general independence as adults
  • 100% identified increased confidence, generally and specifically about coping with university study
  • 100% identified increased social skills and ability to mix with and meet new people
  • 100% agreed that studying advanced highers on a university campus and the year-long immersion helped prepare them for the transition to university
  • 87% developed a HE learner identity and sense of belonging while studying at the Hub

Moving beyond pre-entry

An key message emerging from the literature is the importance of moving beyond pre-entry and the first-year experience to embed transition activity within a longitudinal student lifecycle model. Where possible, this approach should have as its focus student engagement and developing pedagogy and strategy around transitional identity within the mainstream curriculum and broader academic sphere. The model developed at the Hub reflects such an approach by reaching back in terms of the learner journey. What is special about the immersive model of the Hub is that it aims to blur the school-university boundary.

As such HE becomes more accessible to prospective students because they have already acquired the cultural capital of the academy, as well as the social capital provided via new friendships and networks. As a result, participants develop a distinctive HE learner identity. They feel like students and feel that they belong in HE.

Despite attempts to demonstrate the efficacy of widening participation interventions, there is a consensus that the evidence is limited. Academic mentoring by students already in HE and summer schools have been positively evaluated. However, these might be easier to measure. Perhaps it is unsurprising to note the apparent dearth of evidence of what makes successful access programmes when we consider that many are short-lived or one-off. Indeed, even mentoring and summer schools could hardly be considered striking and sustained activities which, in Bourdieusien terms, is necessary for the habitus to transformed.

2 responses to “Capital gains: How school pupils become university students

  1. Thanks for this. Great to see more attention to social capital put into practice and to using Bourdieu as a frame for analysis. Looks like a really interesting initiative you are leading as well.

    I am struck by your last comment – how we might look more widely to make a sustained transformation to the habitus. I would be keen to see work using social network analysis to track differences in networking strategies and effects for students from different backgrounds.

    Middle class students both know how to use networks for their own advancement and also come with them ready established: “Mummy is a barrister in chambers who knows someone at the Mail who can get me an internship.” is something that flows naturally for students from certain backgrounds. For others, they don’t have a foundation of influential contacts nor the experience of using them (or watching their parents use them).

    Universities offer a unique potential on both fronts – they have links into governments, institutions and multi-nationals, and have global networking as a key academic skill that they could extend to their students.

    What more can we be doing to use those resources to build social capital for our students who do not arrive with it?

    Thanks for the article. Look forward to hearing more about your work at GCU.

  2. As previously discussed on Wonkhe, Scottish higher educuation policy subsidises the affluent middle classes and penalises the poor. See for example Hence, the first section of this blog is bang on.

    On Glasgow Caledonian’s Hub scheme, without details of how the participants were selected into the programme it is impossible to gauge what the treatment effect actually is (ie whether without it the students would have had an advanced higher rate closer to 100% or closer to 79%). Nor is the cost of the programme stated.

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