22 SES 06 D, Inclusion and Diversity in Higher Education Settings
The study reported in part in this paper focused on how economically challenged adult learners on Access to Higher Education (HE) courses in England struggled with institutional and social structures in particular socio-economic circumstances (Foucault, 1977) to attend their courses and pursue the project of the self (Giddens, 1991). Despite the power-invested relationships (Handley et al., 2006) with their tutors and their interactions with each other the students appeared to generate collaborative communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991) on their courses, transforming their identities.
Participants in the study, Access to HE students and their tutors were asked about students’ past and present learning experiences, the transformation of students’ views of themselves as learners during the Access course, relationships between students and tutors, and the impact on their learning of students’ socio-economic contexts including their relationships with their families, friends and fellow students.
Little seems to be known nationally in England and Wales about mature students’ views of their engagement with learning on Access courses and how these influence their transitions to Higher Education and their shifts in identity (Askham, 2008). Yet about 40,000 students join these courses each year, of whom about 50% are successful in gaining access to Higher Education (QAA, 2012). Those studies that have been carried out tend to regard mature or non-standard students as homogenous groups who are socio-economically and culturally disadvantaged (Warmington, 2002) most of whom hold negative memories of earlier compulsory education (Brine and Waller 2004).
Access to HE courses, requiring less than one year of full-time study, provide a unique route into HE for mature learners, often from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. These courses were originally established in the 1970s in England and Wales in an attempt to redress the balance of educational disadvantage (Jones, 2006) some people experienced. The courses lead to a diploma that is awarded by regional award validating authorities (AVAs) for vocational education which are regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), an agency of central government in England and Wales. They are designed to provide adult learners with generic skills and subject knowledge in a wide range of areas such as nursing and midwifery, social science, arts and humanities and science and technology to prepare students for study at university. They are usually delivered in Further Education (FE) Colleges which generally offer a collaborative ethos or culture focused around values celebrating mature learners (Warmington, 2002).
Widening participation is a contested notion linked in part to social justice and equality of opportunity and in part to strengthening economic prosperity both for individuals and nationally (Burke, 2007). Education policy in England increasingly emphasise strengthening the national economy and lessening youth unemployment rather than creating opportunities to broaden student diversity. Similar contradictions face governments across Europe, as countries strive to create mass HE to generate high-skilled labour to compete in a global market (Field et al., 2010).
Power flows in and around organisations (Benjamin, 2002). Socio-political contexts affect the development of students’ identities (Giddens, 1991). Important sites for this struggle are the Access courses students attend, although the cultures on the courses are thought to mediate the sense of struggle and educational disadvantage (Jones, 2006). Within courses, students’ negotiations of work schedules with tutors is a political processes (Ball, 1987, Handley et al., 2006), tutors having formal power deriving from their office, from their access to resources of knowledge (Busher, 2006) and from their regulatory or disciplinary power and powers of surveillance (Foucault, 1977) on behalf of their colleges and the AVAs giving Access to HE diplomas. However, students also assert power in these relationships.
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