Step up the heights of attainment
Joe Eyre reports on what Stirling University is doing to widen access
Widening access to higher education is not about dumbing down and it's not about college recruitment by another route, says Jim Bradley, the FEHE co-ordinator at Stirling University. "It's about preparation, enabling people to skill themselves to take advantage of the opportunities that are available."
For the past 12 years, the university has been working to overcome barriers to mature students entering higher education. Mr Bradley believes that many people don't see a university education as something for them. "Often, they don't think they're clever enough," he explains.
"Then, there are powerful barriers such as their dealings with professionals like teachers, doctors or lawyers, which reinforce the idea that only particular people can take advantage of university and they wouldn't belong."
Sometimes people face resentment or even obstruction from their families because returning to study means juggling competing priorities, such as the demands of a job, shortage of money and child care responsibilities. When something has to give, studying may well be first to go.
As students progress to higher levels, the importance they attach to studying increases. While some problems might prompt a person to give up a class in the community, those on a degree course value their education and will manage even a serious crisis in a way that allows them to continue studying.
A significant number of Stirling University's mature students come by non-traditional routes, mainly from further education colleges. Many go back to study for Highers. Increasingly, colleges negotiate routes for their HND and HNC students. Others take an access course.
These are mostly one-year full-time courses run through the Scottish Wider Access Programme, which is designed for adults with no, or few, educational qualifications, and successful completion virtually guarantees a place for higher education. The university itself runs a successful access to degree studies programme, taking more than 70 mature students a year.
Mr Bradley thinks that access programmes are still failing to reach a significant proportion of adults who could benefit from going to university. Stirling University is backing the development of a pre-access programme which allows adult learners to try subjects and find out if they would enjoy studying before progressing to a SWAP course at a local college or the university's access to degree studies programme.
Closer relationships between universities and colleges have been developing for some time. A pilot project involving Stirling University and Falkirk College of Further and Higher Education allows mature HND students to study a unit of their programme at the university before deciding whether to apply for a degree course. This flexible approach has seen the university taking successful HND students directly into the third year of a degree course. Of the six students on the initial pilot, all completed degrees in subjects such as tourism management and conservation science.
These students get extra support. Mr Bradley visits them in college before they start their university course. They then come to the university for three days to familiarise themselves with the surroundings and be coached in learning skills. They also have the benefit of advice from a mentor, a student who has come to university by a non-traditional route and is aware of the problems likely to be encountered. Simple questions such as "Will I need a lab coat?" and "Where can I buy one?" can be answered readily.
Informal support is also available: the university has a mature students'
society affiliated to the students' association. "When I was a mature student at Strathclyde University," Mr Bradley says, "the mature students'
society was the biggest single help that we had. People with kids would form a kind of creche when school holidays fell within university term time. That kind of peer support is very important."
Learning support at Stirling University is seen in broad terms. Part of Mr Bradley's remit is to help overcome barriers to learning. For example, if a student is suffering from mental illness and is unable to attend classes, he will try to organise a flexible return to learning that takes account of the person's needs.
These arrangements could then also be used by other groups of students, such as those in work or with child care responsibilities. Once support is offered, it can be used by students who need it whether it was designed with them in mind or not.
Much has been done to bring down the barriers to adults returning to learning, but Mr Bradley feels more can be done. So does his colleague Richard Dockrell, a teaching fellow at the university and the former director of the university's access to degree studies programme.
Perhaps significantly, both have experience of work outside the field of education, as well as higher education. Mr Bradley began his working life as a telephone engineer, while Dr Dockrell had a variety of jobs, from working with the Co-op to Cosla, the local authorities association, gaining experience of policy formulation and delivery.
They think institutions and professional bodies such as the General Teaching Council for Scotland, the Law Society and the British Psychological Society should be more creative in their approach and work with qualifications awarding bodies such as the SQA to create pathways into professions for adult learners.