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Who is responsible for students' success?

02 May 2019 | Professor Jacqueline Stevenson Professor Jacqueline Stevenson is a sociologist of education with interests in equity and diversity, widening participation, and differential outcomes. In this blog she shares her thinking around student retention and success.

Professor Jacqueline Stevenson is a sociologist of education with interests in equity and diversity, widening participation, and differential outcomes. In this blog she shares her thinking around student retention and success.

At a time of growing concerns over early withdrawal from higher education, inequitable student outcomes in relation to degree attainment or highly skilled employment, as well as rising concerns over students' mental wellbeing, it is perhaps unsurprising that the need to ensure students are 'successful' dominates many of the debates in HE.

Determining who is 'at risk' of not being successful drives data collection approaches - with students who are on an 'at risk' register targeted for 'intervention'. Of course, it is right and proper that we need to know who needs additional support and to ensure we help those students who need it.  

The problem is that many of the approaches designed to support those at risk not only problematise students as lacking but pathologise them as not having the 'right' sort of characteristics to be successful. As higher education becomes increasingly, and never endingly target-driven, it is easy to lose sight of why we are doing the things that we are doing.

One example is the way in which the apparent need to build students' resilience is increasingly framing approaches to higher education access and transition activities, as well as to institutional retention and success interventions. Indeed, a short sweep of university websites evidence how over the last few years there have been a proliferation of institutional 'toolkits' and online activities designed to, variously, help students to 'deal with' and 'overcome' social and academic challenges, 'manage uncertainty', 'accept rejection', 'maintain perspective' and 'overcome fear of failure' - to better enable them to remain on course, maintain their wellbeing and complete their studies. 

Such interventions, however, locate both the problem and the solution firmly with the individual - obviating the role of the institution. In short, if you can 'fix' the student then there won't be a problem. Such approaches allow institutions to exclusively focus on developing those internal traits deemed to be lacking in students, and to ignore or avoid developing external resources which might enhance their success, as well as avoid any recognition of the social and material exigencies and structural barriers that many individuals encounter when seeking to access to, remain in, or be successful from HE.

Our higher education system remains dominated by white, middle-class privilege, although, of course, there are efforts across the sector to effect change and this should be recognised. However, we still lack ethnic diversity across our teaching staff, operate around a wholly Christian calendar, and deliver a curriculum that recognises only certain sorts of knowledge(s). We are yet to have the sort of university system that is truly representative of its diverse student body.

Understanding and responding to inequalities requires more than gathering data. Engaging with students needs us to do more than just elicit student voices, and thinking about students' success(es) requires all of us to challenge the cultural hegemonies of higher education to ensure that we create a system which does not problematise students who do not fit a certain mould.

In coming together for the retention and success symposium I hope, therefore, that we will also consider:

•    What is our real purpose in gathering data, engaging with students, and thinking about success?
•    And is it really at the heart of students' best interests?
•    And if it is not, what should we be doing differently?

Hear more from Jacqueline at the Advance HE Student Retention and Success Symposium


Professor Jacqueline Stevenson is Head of Research in the Sheffield Institute of Education, Sheffield Hallam University. Jacqueline currently leads work for the Sheffield Hallam on addressing the degree attainment gap and heads up the University's Hallam Guild. She was previously Professor of Higher Education at Leeds Beckett University.

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