Over the last two years I have developed and learnt from a growing network of friends and colleagues in the USA and beyond. Part of this learning is to make a plea that in the UK we do not repeat some of the mistakes that have defined college-going in the USA: most notably the prohibitively high costs of attending some institutions. There are also many positive outcomes to be gained from these connections and understanding.
Aside from policy thoughts, practically, how can looking beyond our own geographic boundaries support our work? In October 2017, with support from the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and their international partnerships, I found myself at the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers’ (AACRAO) annual Strategic Enrolment Management (SEM) conference. Attending SEM became career defining. Although not solely focused on issues around equity in access and success, I gained a more in-depth insight into the diverse and complex US higher education system sparking an interest to know more. I also learnt how critical it is that institutions take a sophisticated ‘whole lifecycle approach’ to navigating the intricacies of student access to, and success in and beyond, higher education.
Crucially at SEM 2017 I was fortunate enough to hear a keynote from Dr Tricia Seifert, Associate Professor for Adult & Higher Education and Department Head for Education at Montana State University (MSU). Her talk included a wealth of research into student success, and two key areas struck me: 1. the concept of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in higher education student success; and 2. students’ concerns about higher education. Whilst much of the research was restricted to Canada and the USA, both aspects rang true to what we observe in the UK. Firstly the ‘hidden curriculum’ speaks to a structural issue that we know students can face, especially if they have not had the fortune to know others who have progressed through higher education or specific HE institutions. Secondly the concerns students in urban and rural Canada and the USA raised were strikingly similar to many of those we hear raised on outreach activity and see in pre and post activity evaluation of our access work in the UK.
Given these similarities it seemed only natural to open a dialogue with Dr Seifert. I wanted to establish what we might learn, and the potential to work together on addressing any of these through innovative, research informed solutions. The outcomes to-date have seen the testing of a board-game based university simulation to allow students agency in determining their pathway through university, using their time to ‘play’ the world of higher education. The evidence has been clear: students want to play this experience whilst making decisions about their future education trajectory. There is also real value for staff playing the game to be reminded of the component parts we ask students to ‘juggle’ in higher education. We need to think how explicit we are about these requirements and ultimately whether they are necessary requirements or structural inhibitors.
This is one relatively small example from an HE sector that shares many common challenges and successes with UK HE. However, this one example has opened a larger dialogue about the issues in access and student success from which much reciprocal learning continues to take place. For me it is evidence for a continued need to keep looking outside our own immediate sphere both within the UK context and beyond.
Kirsty Wadsley, Head of Widening Participation, London School of Economics