Securing great outcomes for students means focusing on students, not courses

Government should abandon the rhetoric of "low value" courses and focus on helping the students who are least likely to progress, says Graeme Atherton.

The government’s quest to improve student outcomes is only likely to intensify over this parliament as Covid-19 increases the challenges facing students leaving higher education.

It seems likely, given the recent rhetoric of ministers, that increases in graduate unemployment/under-employment or decrease in earnings will be taken as evidence of the need to reduce participation in alleged low quality courses or higher education overall.

Ensuring that all students reach their potential is essential now more than ever, but limiting participation is too narrow an approach. It risks reducing the ability of the tertiary system to adapt to a labour market whose requirements are changing even more quickly than before due to Covid-19 as well as being blind to how good outcomes are deemed differently by student and context.

A different approach to the issue of improving student outcomes is required. One which concentrates on the student groups whose outcomes need improving rather than courses. The evidence showing that certain groups, in particular those from BAME, lower-socio-economic backgrounds, students with disabilities and those leaving care may not be achieving their potential is far stronger than that which looks at the outcomes by course or the system overall.

A student based approach

A new report produced by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) and supported by Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex explores what this might look like. The Future of Student Outcomes includes contributions from those working in learning/teaching, widening access, careers and graduate employment. It points to a number of features of a “student based”, rather than “participation based” approach to improving outcomes.

The first feature is moving beyond deficit based models of learning/teaching based on false myths and assumptions regarding what certain students are or can achieve. Drawing on examples from the UK and South Africa, the report illustrates that valuing the experiences and culture of students from under-represented groups does work.

In the example of South Africa, where drop-out rates for black students hover around 50 per cent, taking a holistic approach to the student experience encompassing pedagogy, student support and culture has moved retention closer to 80 per cent. Changing mindsets in this way though, is a long term endeavour that needs to become core to what providers do in staff training, data collection, and other activity, and is not optional.

Transformational approaches to practice, while necessary, are not sufficient in a student based approach to outcomes. The structure of the system and especially how it is funded – both at undergraduate and postgraduate level – need to be confronted.

ISER research itself points to how the psychological burden of student debt distorts graduate career choices as short term gain if favoured over long term career projects. Aside from the need to improve actual student support via maintenance grants this evidence highlights the pressures that the contraction in employment in the hospitality and retail sectors will put on the students who depend on employment in these sectors to live. Any student based approach to outcomes in the Covid-19 era must consider seriously how these sources of income will be replaced.

Unlocking the labour market

Finally, how we prepare students for the labour market and how employers recruit must be addressed. This means tailoring careers support for students from different backgrounds, adopting the strengths not deficit approach described above and concentrating on “employability” (how to get a job, keep a job, and thrive in a job) rather than just “recruitability” (how to get a job). Many employers are increasingly aware how their recruitment processes lock certain students out of their organisations but more needs to be done here.

A starting point would be to address both the part-time work crisis caused by Covid-19 and the present patchwork system of paid/unpaid internships that only serve to perpetuate inequality and introduce a national student work experience scheme. Such a scheme could include small and medium enterprises as well as large graduate employers, and give all students the exposure to real work contexts that would aid them in making the best employment choices after higher education.

The ideas in this report are by no means a complete package of measures to improve student outcomes. But they present a crucial first step. Much is being made at present of the culture wars that higher education is being pulled into. As the social and economic impact of the pandemic only worsens then it is the outcome wars that may in the end define what higher education looks like at the end of the decade.

As we enter this conflict a set of ideas that appreciate the importance of improving outcomes, but present a different, better way of doing this, will be essential.

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