ERG SES D 12, Research in Higher Education
Since the middle of the 20th century, European higher education has grown from an elite to a mass system of education (Trow, 1999). Such a rapid expansion of higher education enrolments is the result of a global view that sees schooling as important for many positions in society and that views increasing numbers of young people as suitable for higher education (Schofer and Meyer, 2005). However, although more than 30 percent of European 25 – 54 year olds now have a tertiary education qualification (Eurostat, 2017), inequalities still remain in access to higher education (McCoy et al., 2010; Reimer and Pollock, 2011; Brown, 2018). Mature students and students from some socioeconomic groups are still underrepresented in higher education (HEA, 2018). Even when students do attend college, a high proportion fail to progress to graduation (European Commission, 2017).
Programmes have been developed in many European countries, including Ireland, to encourage groups that are underrepresented in higher education to obtain such a qualification (Eurostat, 2017). An Access programme is an important intervention for marginalised students. Access programmes provide the supports students need to tackle the social, educational and financial barriers that some students experience in accessing higher education (O’Reilly, 2008). Technological University Dublin (TU Dublin) has developed an Access programme to help individuals and communities to overcome socioeconomic barriers to accessing higher education and to encourage mature students to engage in higher education. Students who successfully complete the Access programme receive a level 6 award on the NFQ (equivalent to level 5 on the EFQ) and are offered a place on an undergraduate course at TU Dublin.
The goal of this research is to determine the factors that affect the progression of students on the Access programme at TU Dublin to undergraduate students at the same institution.
The current research is guided by the research question:
What factors affect the progression of students in the Access programme to undergraduate studies at TU Dublin?
Specifically, the study will examine whether, or not, the progression of Access students to undergraduate studies at TU Dublin is affected by factors that have been identified in the literature in relation to progression in higher education, such as:
Demographic factors: age, gender and nationality
Personal factors: personality, motivation and self-efficacy
Educational factors: attendance and stress
Institutional factors: course of study and location of the higher education institution
Environmental factors: finances, working and family commitments
There may also be additional factors affecting progression that are yet to be identified in the literature. This is because the majority of research in the area has been conducted with higher education students and may not be applicable to students in the TU Dublin Access programme for a number of reasons:
- Students in the Access programme are underrepresented in higher education. TU Dublin’s Access programme reserves 80 percent of places for mature students (aged 23 years and over) and the remaining 20 percent of places for socially disadvantaged young adult students (aged less than 23 years).
- Unlike higher education students, students in the Access programme do not pay fees or a student contribution, and some participants may receive financial allowances from the Irish government while they engage in the programme.
- Students in the TU Dublin Access programme have more flexibility in choosing modules than is typical in the higher education classroom.
A pragmatic, mixed-methods approach was used, and both quantitative and qualitative data were collected. Given that this study examines complex social situations, using solely quantitative or qualitative approaches was considered limiting. Combining both quantitative and qualitative approaches in the study provided a better understanding of the research question than if either approach was used alone. By conducting a quantitative phase followed by a qualitative phase, the researcher was able to determine, first, the factors affecting the progression of Access Foundation students to undergraduate studies at TU Dublin and, second, how and why those factors affected students. Quantitative Phase In the quantitative phase a questionnaire was used because such an instrument offers a quick and efficient way to collect data. A 29-item self-administered questionnaire was developed to investigate the factors that the literature identified as affecting progression. The first 16 questions address issues related to the demographic and environmental factors of students on the programme. Each question was related to one of the identified factors. The remaining 13 questions examine personal factors, such as motivation, personality traits and general self-efficacy beliefs. The questionnaire includes open and closed questions and incorporates four validated scales: the Academic Motivation Scale (Vallerand et al., 1992), the Need for Relatedness at College Questionnaire (Guiffrida et al., 2008), the General Self-Efficacy Scale (Schwarzer and Jerusalem, 1995), and the Big Five Inventory (John and Srivastava, 1999). When the questionnaire was developed, a pilot was conducted with former students of the Access programme, the director of the Access programme and two lecturers. Their recommendations were considered and necessary changes were made to the instrument. In September 2017, all 91 students enrolled in the Access Foundation programme were invited to complete the final questionnaire. In total, 59 student questionnaires were returned (response rate of 65 percent) and the data was entered into SPSS for analysis. Qualitative Phase Qualitative data was collected through seven semi-structured interviews with Access students selected through a purposive sampling method, at the end of the Access Foundation programme in April 2018. Interviews lasted approximately 30 minutes. A grounded theory approach was adopted when analysing the qualitative data as this enabled the researcher to generate themes in a systematic and interpretive way. The interview data was transcribed and coded using Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) open, axial and selective coding approach.
Preliminary analysis of the quantitative data revealed that attendance is significantly correlated with progression. Results also revealed high progression rates for parents (100 percent) and students who work (92 percent). There is no evidence of significant differences in progression by age, gender or nationality. During interviews, participants raised issues related to module choice, belonging and stress. Access students have the option to change modules in semester 2. Some interview participants contended that students may have left the programme if they did not have this option. One interview participant questioned whether he belonged at TU Dublin or he should move to a college where he felt he would fit in better. Interviews also revealed that Access students were stressed by the competitive nature of the programme, group work and in-class presentations. Soria and Bultmann’s (2014) finding that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds find it more difficult to experience a sense of belonging in college appears to concur with the findings here. Also, although students who worked during the Access programme were just as likely to progress as other students, working during college may affect physical and mental health (Carney et al., 2005). Extending a higher education grant to include Access students may allow students to reduce their working hours. Furthermore, the high levels of stress mentioned by interview participants suggest it might be advisable to have a counsellor onsite. Overall, the preliminary findings suggest a variety of factors affect progression from the Access programme to undergraduate studies at TU Dublin. One interview participant said that students who remain in the programme really “want it”. This goal of “wanting it”, wanting a higher education qualification, may be the drive students need in order to progress to undergraduate studies and beyond.
Carney, C., McNeish, S. and McColl, J. (2005). The impact of part time employment on students’ health and academic performance: a Scottish perspective. Jpournal of Further and Higher Education, 29(4) 307 – 319. European Commission. (2017). European semester thematic factsheet: Tertiary education attainment. Luxembourg: European Union. Eurostat (2017. Tertiary Statistics Explained. Retrieved 21/02/2019 from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Tertiary_education_statistics HEA (2018). New multi-million euro fund to support underrepresented students to access higher education. Retrieved 21/01/2019 from http://hea.ie/2018/02/22/new-multi-million-euro-fund-to-support-underrepresented-students-to-access-higher-education/ Guiffrida, D., Gouveia, A., Wall, A. and Seward, D. (2008). Development and Validation of the Need for Relatedness at College Questionnaire (NRC-Q). Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 1(4), 251 – 261 John, O. P., & Srivastava, S. (1999). The Big-Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. In L. A. Pervin & O. P. John (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research 2, 102–138. New York: Guilford Press. McCoy, S., Byrne, D., O'Connell, P., Kelly, E. & Doherty, C. (2010). Hidden Disadvantage? A Study of the Low Participation in Higher Education by the Non Manual Group. Dublin: Higher Education Authority O’Reilly, P. (2008). The Evolution of University Access Programmes in Ireland. Dublin: UCD Geary Institute Discussion Paper Series Reimer D. and Pollak, R. (2010). Educational Expansion and Its Consequences for Vertical and Horizontal Inequalities in Access to Higher Education in West Germany. European Sociological Review, 26(4), 415–430. Schofer, E. and Meyer, J. (2005). The worldwide expansion of higher education in the twentieth Century. American Sociological Review, 70(6), 898-920 Schwarzer, R., & Jerusalem, M. (1995). Generalized Self-Efficacy scale. In J. Weinman, S. Wright, & M. Johnston, Measures in health psychology: A user’s portfolio. Causal and control beliefs (pp. 35-37). UK: NFER-NELSON Soria, K. and Bultmann, M. (2014). Supporting working-class students in higher education. NACADA Journal, 34(2), 51 – 62 Strauss A. & Corbin, J. M. (1998). Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory. California: Sage Publications, Inc. Trow, M. A. (2000). From Mass Higher Education to Universal Access: The American Advantage. UC Berkeley: Center for Studies in Higher Education. Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., Blais, M. R., Briere, N. M., Senecal, C. and Vallieres, E. F. (1992). The academic motivation scale: a measure of intrinsic, extrinsic, and amotivation in education. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 52(4)1003 – 1017.
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