S. Speed, J. Timpson, E. Haque

University of Manchester (UNITED KINGDOM)
In the UK there has been a concerted effort to widen the participation (WP) of students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds into university education. This has meant that in the United Kingdom (UK), Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) have had to develop a targeted approach to recruiting students from WP backgrounds into higher education. Whilst there has been a degree of success so far in many institutions, there is a notable and problematic high attrition rate amongst WP students. The Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE 2013) have indicated that the support for students from WP backgrounds is a priority not just for recruitment but also whilst studying. There has been little research undertaken into the experience of students from WP backgrounds and this paper, which is taken from a larger study, presents the experiences of WP students at the start of the course of study in a large faculty of medical and human sciences. Data is presented on their experiences and how this affects the early period of their study, some of the difficulties they experience and ways to overcome this using academic support mechanisms.

Eight focus groups discussions were undertaken with students from schools within the faculty (medicine, dentistry, nursing and midwifery, pharmacy and psychology) with between 4 and 8 students in each group. The focus groups were discipline specific. The questions were designed to be flexible and wide ranging enough to allow for open discussion. The schedule allowed for the sensitive exploration of the experience of WP students, developing insights into the student perspective and the generation of consensus points (Kitzinger, 1994; Kreuger, 2008). Analysis of the focus group discussion was undertaken using framework analysis (Ritchie and Spence 1994). The focus group data were transcribed verbatim and analysed following steps to ensure rigour and concordance between the coding frame (Denzin and Lincoln 2004). Member checking (Munhall 2008) was undertaken with a sample of WP students not involved in this study.

Five themes were generated from the data analysis. Getting in, navigating the interview, knowing you are different right from the start, making the transition and accepting/resolution – doing the best you can but not your best. Knowing you are different right from the start is a key issues for discussion. It was reported that course leaders made assumptions about the groups and their motivation to study and assumed that everyone who attended began on a equal footing. WP students reported that they knew that they were different because they often experienced financial difficulties, had inadequate study support equipment and lacked time and confidence. They also reported that they did not have access to family support as they were often the first to go to university in their family. They reported both judging and feeling judged by other students. For many this initial period was characterised by self-doubt and questioning their motivation to continue.

WP students need both support and encouragement during the early days of their course of study. Academic support is key to easing the transition into university for WP students. Study support and acknowledgement that "we are not all the same" was felt to important for WP students. The innovative use of learning technology could help to improve the experience of WP students.