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Access students left stranded as initial back-up falls away;FE Focus

The support given to students on access courses does not extend into their degree courses. A new research study indicates the struggle that many have academically, financially and domestically.

"There is a mismatch of culture," states the report on how students from the Scottish Wider Access Programme fare while studying for degrees. It continues: "Students need to have confidence in themselves and at least minimum competence to be able to succeed in higher education, but the very methods by which these are obtained through SWAP are not available in higher education."

None the less "the predominant picture is of students who were determined to persevere despite considerable difficulty". The Government-funded study by the Scottish Council for Research in Education looked at the same students whose experiences of access courses and the early stages of higher education had been investigated in 1994. Fifty-three students were contacted and the great majority did well.

But whereas their year's access study before a degree course had given them support and built self-confidence, there was less encouragement later. Elizabeth Hull, who took an arts degree at Edinburgh University, said: "The standard of teaching and the seniority of the staff participating in access was so high that some undergraduate courses were shabby in comparison."

The Government-initiated Scottish Wider Access Programme, which started in 1988, involves higher education, further education colleges and local authorities. Most students found that their university did not acknowledge in any way that they had been access students. But unlike other mature entrants, SWAP students could draw upon an already established network of contacts.

The access year had been generally good in teaching study skills and building confidence. One student said: "I wouldn't have got into higher education otherwise. SWAP gave a broad basis of study. Access was less isolating than going into a school. We bonded better than in subsequent higher education. It was a worthwhile slog."

The majority were aged from 25 to 50 and had heavy financial and family responsibilities. Six out of 10 had money problems while undergraduates, and about 40 per cent - more women than men - took a term-time job at some point in their course.

Six out of 10 reported other personal problems, such as family illness. These affected women more than men. Library hours conflicted with childcare arrangements. Just over half the students had academic difficulties during their course.

The authors of the report, Janet Powney and Stuart Hall, say that there is "a clear lesson" for higher education which is not resourced, or at least organised, to provide the kind of support achieved through SWAP. Institutions have to be more aware of the diversity of students they are enrolling.

Esme Docherty, who took a BA at Strathclyde, said: "Universities in their prospectuses actively encourage mature students, advertising cr che facilities and support systems. However, the reality is more like bums on seats. No one has time for you. Although I was given a lot of support from staff in the arts faculty, my experience seems to have been the exception rather than the norm."

Scottish Access Students in Higher Education by Janet Powney and Stuart Hall is obtainable from 15 St John Street, Edinburgh, at pound;10.

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