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Access, Retention Attainment and Progression (ARAP) – building blocks for student success

08 May 2024 | Professor Liz Austen Dr Kay Hack and Stuart Norton, co-authors of the revised ARAP Framework, invite the lead author of the underpinning 2021 literature review, Professor Liz Austen, to reflect on the evidence and progress since the review was conducted by Sheffield Hallam University

Access, Retention Attainment and Progression (ARAP) are the building blocks of ensuring successful outcomes for all students and central to the original Student Success Framework Series. 

As Advance HE launch this timely update of the ARAP Framework, Dr Kay Hack, its author, invites the lead author of the underpinning literature review, Professor Liz Austen, Professor of Higher Education Evaluation, Associate Dean Teaching & Learning (College of Social Science & Arts), Sheffield Hallam University, to reflect on the evidence  and  progress since the review was conducted by a staff and student team from Sheffield Hallam University in 2021.

Framing Student Success: Where are we now?

The wide-ranging literature review was focussed on interventions which had a demonstrable impact on student outcomes. Despite its breadth, the evidence base had some limitations. Notably, there were gaps around student progression and the review did not include any COVID specific learning. We strongly argued for a better articulation of theory and evaluation and the successful capacity-building tool – ChangeBusters – was born. So what has changed since then?

An outcome focus for institutions

The OfS review of Access and Participation (APP) has led to increased expectations for data-driven decisions on student success interventions and their impact assessment. The ARAP literature review, which preceded the OfS work, and the resulting Framework can now be referenced as a key resource in underpinning intervention strategies in newly written APPs.

While the definitions of Access and Progression  in higher education have stabilised, Retention is now referred to as ‘continuation’ and ‘completion’. Attainment is largely replaced by ‘awarding’ in higher education discussions. As the evidence base is regularly updated, new search terms will be required.

As student outcomes became tighter in focus through TEF and B3 conditions, and institutions structure their narratives with student outcomes front and centre, the Student Success Framework could be used to provide structure to institutional strategies or regulatory returns. This framework can encourage joined up working across academic and professional service areas of institutions to provide a holistic student lifecycle approach.

The responsibility on educators to share learning 

Our ARAP literature review looked at published sources and grey literature in recognition that impact evidence is quite often found in non-peer reviewed publications. Since publication, we have begun to experience a cultural shift in HE where evaluation is gaining the same momentum as research. In future, this may be influenced by the OfS requirements to publish evaluation findings, which will certainly widen the evidence base. Publishing open access - such as the STEER repository - is an ideal solution.

There is a long history of reflection on the scholarship of learning and teaching for example, that needs to adapt to a new generation of evaluators who are in diverse institutional and sector spaces and are beginning to be heard. Whilst research is essential to uncover the problems, challenges and barriers to access, retention, attainment and progression, quite often publications simply conclude with ‘we believe more research is needed’. What is actually needed is a change in practice, policy or strategy and an associated evaluation of impact. It is essential that anyone evaluating impact is supported to publish their student success reflections and evidence of impact (or not) so a that a clear rationale for adopting, adapting, or stopping something can be discussed.

A changing learning environment for students

Our exploration of student success in 2021 was not influenced by publications reporting impact during the COVID pandemic. We discussed technology-enabled learning, and online delivery but did not have the scale of the evidence that is now apparent in the literature and embedded in our experience as educators. We know that across most years of study, Covid impacted negatively on educational outcomes. More recently, students have been struggling with a cost of living crisis which has had financial implications, skewed the work-study balance, and affected wellbeing and mental health, playing a part in retention and attainment outcomes. The ethnicity awarding gap remains the most significant and persistent issue, often overshadowing other areas of disadvantage due to resource constraints. Finally, moves by the government to challenge ‘low quality’ courses, tighten immigration legislation and impose cuts to outreach activity means that access to HE becomes more difficult for prospective students. Mattering and belonging continue to be crucial concepts associated with a student centred approach. Supporting the success of all students to achieve good outcomes is more important than ever. 

Liz Austen

Professor of Higher Education Evaluation, Associate Dean Teaching & Learning (College of Social Science & Arts), Sheffield Hallam University

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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