22 SES 05 E, Students' Participation and Communication
The focus of this paper is an investigation into the experiences of students studying at a UK University, whose course includes the opportunity for Erasmus visits, as well as short residential trips to European countries. The study is conducted in the context of students who come from a background attributable to widening participation (WP). ‘Widening participation’ in the UK is defined as increased levels of participation in higher education by different groups in society, including women, students from different socio-economic groups, different localities, mature students, students with disabilities and ethnic minority students (NCIHE, 1997, Chapter 7). The term has more recently also come to include women with families and those from non-traditional academic backgrounds (Reay, 2003).
This study is particularly significant in a European context, as it directly addresses the participation and transitionary academic experiences of UK students in European institutions. The process is part of the Erasmus+ agenda, which aims “to help tackle socio-economic changes, the key challenges that Europe will be facing until the end of the decade and to support the implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy for growth, jobs, social equity and inclusion” (EC, 2014, p.9).
Osborne (2003) reported that the latter decades of the twentieth century have seen a major expansion of the HE system in Europe, and a subsequent increase in initiatives to widen participation of students. These initiatives have been associated with economic instrumentalism, social justice and widening opportunities with regard to further higher education and the labour market. Indeed, internationalisation in its various forms includes academic, inter-cultural and financial benefits (Gu and Schweisfurth, 2011, p.611). Although complex in terms of the impact, research has shown that such inter-cultural adaptation within different educational environments, cultures and societies lead to students’ shifting socio-cultural associations. These transitions include facets such as language acquisition, social interaction, personal development and academic outcomes. (Gu, Schweisfurth and Day, 2010, p.7). Other related aspects which are impacted by students’ intercultural education include positive correlations with the concepts of equality within social groups, the working towards a meaningful shared purpose, the development of intergroup cooperation, and the exploration of external cultures (Schweisfurth and Gu, 2009, p.465).
Students on a particular course at the University where research was conducted, go on short residential field trips to countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden every summer, so as to enable teaching in conjunction with partnerships in foreign academic institutions.
As statistics can mask qualitative data about the student experience, the research is qualitative in nature, aiming to explore students’ motivations and subsequent experiences as a result of their transitory academic programmes. The specific research questions for the project are:
1. What are the experiences/ benefits from the long-term Erasmus placements?
a) How does the two-way University and international institution partnership impact students’ experiences?
b) What are the benefits/ challenges for WP students in the context of long-term international placements?
2. What are the experiences/ benefits from the short-term European residential trips?
a) How do these trips impact the recruitment and retention of students?
b) What are the benefits/ challenges for WP students in the context of short-term residential trips?
Students fed-back that these trips made them “enthused” and were “worthwhile”. Over-25 year olds said that it made all the difference to completing the course; and that that residential trips made “the whole course gel” together. Tutors further surmised that these transtionary academic experiences helped with student recruitment and retention.
The research project will also explore why the Erasmus and European residential trips experiences are positive for the students and the resultant impact on widening the attractiveness of the course and subsequently student retention.
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