Let’s talk about university readiness, not just widening participation

Spend a little time talking to education policy people in the United States and the words “college and career readiness” are bound to come up. In most states, college and career readiness (usually with an emphasis on the “college”) has become the guiding narrative behind schools policy – a narrative driven by America’s recent history of widespread HE participation, combined with shocking rates of remediation and degree completion.

Only about sixty percent of US higher education students graduate within six years, and many never do, with particularly low rates for some groups. In many respects, the US is not a model to emulate,  with UK retention rates much better even if there is still significant inequality. However, the American focus on college and career readiness represents, at the very least, an acknowledgment that what happens in primary and secondary education has a bearing on what happens thereafter.

After access

Back in the UK, we’re starting to talk about student success and retention more than ever. A frequently heard complaint is that students arrive at university too used to being ‘taught to the test’ and without the higher-order skills needed for independent study. It’s easy to blame schools, but they often lack the time and resources to develop these skills without parental support. Another common villain is the funding, examination and accountability systems within which schools work – fair perhaps, though not things that are within the power of most of us to change.

Over a billion pounds will be spent nationally on widening participation and access initiatives next year. Could we be doing more, not just to encourage the most under-represented pupils to apply to university, but to help them succeed when they get there?

Developing competencies  

At the Brilliant Club we work with over 30 universities, 500 state schools and 10,000 pupils a year. Based on that experience, we believe the best access interventions support the development of key skills that get young people ready for a successful progression to higher education. By placing doctoral and post-doctoral researchers in schools, to deliver programmes of university-style tutorials, supplemented by two university trips, we explicitly seek to develop six competencies in students. These represent a mix of cognitive and non-cognitive skills which, research has indicated, are linked to improved academic attainment and broader life outcomes:

  • Written and verbal communication: the ability to use written information or spoken language to convey ideas clearly and appropriately.
  • Subject knowledge: having a deep-level of understanding about the topic studied (which  relates to the expertise of the tutor).
  • University knowledge: new knowledge about university options and how to successfully apply.
  • Motivation and self-efficacy: motivation being the factors that drive an individual to behave in a particular way (e.g. studying hard because they enjoy the subject), and self-efficacy being their belief that they can achieve a future goal (e.g. I will attend a highly-selective university).
  • Meta-cognition: the ability to think explicitly about one’s own learning.
  • Critical thinking: the ability to analyse and evaluate a subject objectively to form a judgement.

Measuring all these competencies rigorously and consistently is an ongoing challenge, both for us and the partner schools and PhD tutors we work with. But the overall effect has been to provide a shared language of impact for everyone working with our programmes.

There are lots of things that schools already do to develop these skills, but university access interventions have the potential to help pupils deepen and practice these skills in context i.e. in the context of thinking about and preparing for transition to university. We start as early as Year 5 (10 year olds), so it’s important for us and our partner schools to be able to measure the immediate impact of the programme for pupils who are several years away from applying, as well as continuing to hold ourselves accountable for their eventual university destination.

What can HE do?

However, the greatest implication here is for universities. Sure, access/WP interventions that raise awareness of university, or provide information about higher education choices, are valuable in themselves. Those that seek to ‘raise aspirations’ also have merit, although I’d argue that pupils often start with high aspirations, but lose their self-efficacy to achieve them as they grow older. But, as the institutions who spend most of that access money, it’s right that universities should also expect the interventions they support to build the skills that prospective students will need when they arrive.

Rather than argue about whether it’s schools or universities that are responsible for preparing young people for higher level education, we can learn from the example of those who are already working together to achieve just that through their access efforts. In fact, maybe it’s time for us to stop talking only about ‘access’ or ‘widening participation’ for underrepresented groups, and start talking about ‘university readiness’.

The Brilliant Club is running a series of six research seminars, in partnership with UCL, looking at how academic research is being used to inform practices in schools and widening participation – the seminars started this month and run until April 2018. This article is from an accompanying four-part series on the theme of ‘impact in school-based university access work’.

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One response to “Let’s talk about university readiness, not just widening participation

  1. Interesting. We have built HE preparedness into our Access evaluation framework and are working closely with colleagues within our Instituion to embed such work as part of our pre-entry outreach. I know we’re not alone in doing so. It’s one of many important facets to Widening Participation across the whole student lifecycle.

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