Introduction...................................................................1 Terms of reference.........................................................1 Procedure......................................................................1 Findings.........................................................................2 Conclusion.....................................................................5 Recommendations..........................................................8 Appendix........................................................................9

HEFC English Language Report




Terms of Reference

On 4th February 2007 HEFC English Language Tutor Ron Brown requested that a report be completed to investigate the relative success rate of male and female students completing HEFC courses within Gateshead College and to examine the various challenges they face in successfully completing their courses.



In order to obtain relevant information and opinion, the following procedures were adopted.

2.1 2.2

Current research data and literature were reviewed.

Staff and administrators where interviewed both within the College and within Northumbria University HEFC department in order to gain their insight into working with mature students and to gauge what their most common insights and experiences were. 2.3 Current students were interviewed and a questionnaire was issued requesting heir views and opinions regarding what challenges they faced and how these might differ between the sexes. Consideration was given in the course of this research into how mature students could be better supported and what might be done to encourage them to continue their studies in light of potentially difficult personal circumstances. 2.4

2.5 The choice of courses between male and female students was examined in order to uncover if there might be a bias, or a division in course selection and to examine if there might be a call to encourage either sex to consider courses that were outside of whatever traditional set of choices (if any) might emerge. 2.6 A number of case studies were conducted where students who had either completed HEFC courses and had already entered Higher education, or who had completed individual HEFC modules were interviewed in-depth and t their views were canvassed in order to gain greater insight into the kind of challenges they might face as mature students.

Relevant existing research data was reviewed concerning the subjects of r etention and social inclusion of the wider mature student community engaging in ACCESS to HE courses – and was not specifically restricted to those issues faced by students within Gateshead College alone.




3.1 The data from which the findings are taken was drawn from a review of the existing data and from interviews conducted with a small number of staff and also with students undertaking a variety of HEFC courses within Gateshead College. All of those interviewed were full-time and part time mature students and Interviewing took place during February and mid March 2008, being conducted by a student on the HEFC English Language Course, with support from the tutor responsible for that course. Although the interviewing used mainly an open-ended approach to questioning, the use of general areas of interest in relation to the programme and its objectives was used to guide the discussions. These areas are as follows: 1. 2. 3. 4. Differences in student needs Pre-entry guidance Guidance on academic progress Access to child care 3.2


The ability to access support services during bereavement, or when students need assistance with difficult personal relationships. (As in counselling, mediation etc.).

The interviews were later transcribed and subjected to an indepth analysis of the data. It is acknowledged that only very limited numbers of students were interviewed. The main reasons for this are: i) The accessibility/ availability of mature students for interviewing purposes. ii) Constraints on time placed on the exercise and the requirement to rely on the input of a number of external sources. iii) Although the HEFC office does contact all students who withdraw from the programme [not just individual modules], for 2006/07 from over 300 questionnaires sent out fewer than 30 were returned and therefore the reasons for non1 completion remain largely anecdotal. iv) While the author of this report sought to identify issues of social exclusion based on both on the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and also of gender (and how these might be related), who successfully completed their courses, the definition of disadvantage and how this influences student success is problematic. Consequently, it is difficult for individual institutions and researchers to know how best to identify and track targeted students. 2 In addition to these constraints, in view of the small sample size, the findings should not be taken to represent the experience of all mature students taking HEFC courses within Gateshead College, but nevertheless they do raise important issues that need to be considered in the development of personal and academic support for students. 3.3 Differences in student needs

3.4 All of the mature students interviewed felt that their needs, in many respects, were somewhat different to those of many of their younger peers who were engaged in studying by more traditional means. The perceived needs specifically identified by these particular interviewees were largely of a more practical nature, such as:

timetabling issues (such as fitting their courses in around their jobs)

the difficulty of arriving at the College for an early morning start, particularly if the student had children [not just young children] The inability to meet with peers on their course for the purposes of socialisation etc. financial problems problems with travelling a perceived inequality in division of responsibility between the sexes, where insufficient attention was seen to be paid to the needs of some female students, who often felt they had additional constraints placed on their time. (Due to the need to balance home life with work etc). Difficulty in accessing relevant support services when interpersonal relationships between students and/or tutors may go wrong. The lack of sufficient (or any) child care and/or crèche facilities.

• • •

Due to the often complex lifestyles of many mature students, the value of specifically targeted good pre-entry guidance for HEFC students is therefore confirmed by this report.




4.1 In conclusion, a number of female mature students did perceive themselves as having different needs to those of their male contemporaries. The needs, however, were predominantly of a largely practical nature and it was felt that if the College were to attempt to address these needs, then many mature students would feel more able to cope successfully with all of the demands placed upon them, both as individuals and as students. In the case studies conducted, some students cited these differences as being focused along traditional lines and in the perceived divisions in the roles between the sexes. While students from dual parent homes were able to say that responsibility for child care and domestic work was often evenly divided, this was less clear in cases where students regarded themselves as single parents, where the weight of responsibility for caring for children, performing the role of

a homemaker and for providing a source of income, fell exclusively on a single individual. In particular a comment made by Ms X (see appendix) underlined these concerns, when she stated that: “A lot of people still don’t regard the business of running a busy home with young children when you are on your own to be very challenging. But when the kids get sick, or when you have hardly anyone to help you or when you might be struggling just to make ends meet things can get really tough. It is things like this that can make attending college difficult and that can affect your studies.” On the other hand although another student (Miss Y) didn’t have any children of her own to look after, she was caring for her elderly parents (or more specifically her parent in law) who was suffering from senile dementia – and while the true extent to which this might affect her studies is unclear, she did feel that this was an additional responsibility that often made completing her course work significantly more difficult. There was some evidence in certain cases of a bias among female students to take up course places that led them towards potential careers within the caring and teaching professions – while males appeared to prefer science and humanities based courses almost equally. (Again however due to the small number of students that the author of this report was able to gain access to, this evidence should not be considered conclusive). While it is difficult to discern why such a bias might exist, it is likely that largely due to economic considerations, since the job market for mature women over the age of 21 remains relatively open within these professions. This may be less the case in the science and engineering related professions – which although by no means closed to female applicants, still present a much narrower range of opportunities than may be available in these other areas. There may be a case in this regard (should further research bare these findings out) to promote a wider range of opportunities within the HEFC program to female students in particular. Other issues that arose on a number of occasions were that insufficient consideration was given to the needs of female students, particularly in light of the absence of child care facilities and for courses that required an early morning start. 4.2 Additionally there was a feeling among some of the students interviewed that insufficient information or attention was provided to inform them of what resources existed to allow them access to student support services and what

these services might entail. This was particularly relevant when considering issues such as financial hardship, family related issues/counselling, personal relationship issues, access to careers advice etc. However (although there were some exceptions), in large part when both male and female students were made aware of these services, they reported them as being of a good standard and they expressed a high degree of satisfaction - both with the advice they were given – and the support they received from their tutors. While childcare does not usually appear to be a physical barrier to the majority of students who actually attend college, it does have an impact on the ability to submit work close to school holidays such as Christmas and Easter and these are often the points in the year when many people decide leave the course. 3 4.3 There was no clear indication of a bias concerning retention rates between men and women, as the numbers dropping out seemed to be roughly equal. This result was however somewhat skewered by the small sample size and the fact that larger numbers of women gravitated towards humanities based subjects – and those subjects specifically geared towards careers within the teaching and caring sectors. A further study might reveal a trend within individual subject choices – although this would need to be conducted outside both the scope and time frame available to this report.

4.4 Practical arrangements can often make a considerable difference in the ability of students (not just mature students) to cope with their course in conjunction with the many competing demands on their time and financial pressures. 4.5 Clearly there are a number of underlying factors, or inequalities or indeed ‘relative disadvantages’ which can impact a person’s educational life choices and which cannot always easily be accounted for by college administrators. These include: where people are born, social housing, poor health and total absences from school. To this end, there is some evidence that early learners are the most likely to become life-long learners, thus positive

experiences at the initial stages of education, are often a good precursor to continued successful engagement in later life. Put more directly, inequalities in initial education could be viewed as simply a manifestation of profound multiple social disadvantage. 4 Unsurprisingly therefore those students interviewed who recalled a good early school life, often were more positive about their college experiences. However several recent studies of a number of colleges and universities in the UK, continue to indicate that working-class pupils in particular remain the largest group to be identified as most ‘at risk’ of dropping out of education - while there remains a significant lack of infrastructure and funding to facilitate participation amongst these traditionally 5 excluded groups.

4.6 While no very glaring gender issues (or inequalities) emerged in the course of this report, the issue of whether students (and in particular single parents) from traditionally socially excluded backgrounds are fairly represented and/or are supported within the student community remains open to question. This is because in the course of this report it was very difficult to indentify very many students of this kind. This may be due to a number of factors. Firstly it is possible that this particular segment of the adult population do indeed find accessing further and higher education more difficult than their more affluent peers. Secondly due to the limited nature of this study, it may not be possible to form an opinion until more data is collected and further studies are carried out. Lastly it is possible in those cases where interviews were conducted, that those students might consider information of this nature to be confidential and may not wish to share this either with the author of the report, or with college administrators. However it remains vital that this question should actively be considered and that where possible this group should continue to be monitored to ensure access and fairness to all potential students.



5.1 Courses and their tutors should usefully include more opportunities for the social integration of the student group – preferably through greater use of group work in order to encourage students to work more closely together. (With particular emphasis given to the needs of mature students within the College). This would perhaps be best manifested in a gathering area, a lounge, or a facility reserved exclusively for the use of mature students, where they can meet, drink coffee, or arrange to work together in a more collaborative way on projects. 5.2 Both student and academic tutoring include a personal relationship. Clearly some individuals may simply not get on together. Ways of avoiding negative reinforcement of staff and student relationships (and also relationships between students) should be explored as this may possibly seriously affect student performance and retention. Examples of where student relations and relations between students and staff may break down and/or may become intractable are difficult to source reliably. However some anecdotal evidence exists through interviews with HEFC students and tutors, that this may occasionally be an issue in preventing students from feeling able to fully complete their courses. Nonetheless it was felt that where such issues became evident, course tutors were largely sensitive and understanding of student needs. 5.3 Greater consideration should be given within the College with specific emphasis to the needs of mature students, particularly in cases where their needs are likely to differ significantly from those of their younger peers. While there may be no clear bias or single reason why certain students are able to complete their studies while others do not, in the case of female mature students, the most common reasons given for dropping out of their courses were focused predominantly around the issues of child care, work commitments and an often difficult home/family life. These issues would be better addressed if there was a specific person within the HEFC programme that mature students could approach (such as a councillor/support worker), who was trained to address their unique needs and concerns and who could offer appropriate support and advice when this was required. If such a facility is, or was made available, this should be made clear from the earliest possible point.


Case Study A: Miss X is a mature student aged 28 on both the HEFC English Language and Psychology courses at Gateshead college. She was interviewed in-depth, in order to seek her view of her experiences as a student within the College. While her view was largely positive, she did express an opinion that (particularly as a lone parent) she felt that she did face a number of additional challenges that were often in some ways different to those of many of her peers. In the interview, while she expressed a large degree of satisfaction with both her courses and many of the College facilities, she did state that in some cases she felt under an additional degree of pressure, although she also acknowledged that some of these concerns could be difficult for the College to address directly. The biggest issue she raised was one of simple time management and of fitting her coursework around her busy home and family life. When asked to explain this, her response was both pointed and direct: “A lot of people still don’t regard the business of running a busy home with young children when you are on your own to be very challenging. But when the kids get sick, or when you have hardly anyone to help you or when you might be struggling just to make ends meet things can get really tough. It is things like this that can make attending college difficult and that can affect your studies.” However Miss X did feel that when she was able to explain these issues to her tutors, they were generally sympathetic and helpful – and she did not feel, other than perhaps the provision of on-site crèche and/or childcare facilities, that there was a great deal more in practical terms

the College programme.

could do to facilitate her participation on the

Miss X had taken a number of other HEFC modules at the beginning of the year but had withdrawn stating several reasons, the most prominent of which (in addition to those already discussed), included her view that the course was simply not what she expected it to be and that it had also proved too difficult (and too time consuming) to complete. This she felt was also having quite a negative impact on the rest of her course choices. She had therefore decided to withdraw in order to focus more of her energy on these other courses. However she did state that she might consider retaking these courses in a following year.

Case Study B: Miss Y is an employed 24 year old married female studying both HEFC Psychology and Human Biology at Gateshead College. She has no children, although at the time of the interview she was pregnant and was expecting her first child over the following several months. While Miss Y expressed a similarly high level of satisfaction with regard to the advice she received before starting her course (and with the support offered by her course tutors), she also reflected somewhat the views of several of her peers, in that she felt that her experiences were often to in many ways significantly different to those of the majority of her fellow students. Although at the time of writing Miss Y didn’t have any children of her own to look after, she was caring for her elderly parent (or more specifically her parent in law) who was suffering from senile dementia – and while the full extent to which this might affect her studies was unclear, she did feel that this was an additional responsibility that often made completing her course work significantly more difficult. Miss Y had not taken (or withdrawn) from any additional HEFC modules and stated that her experience had been sufficiently positive, in order to encourage her to feel able to perhaps complete a 3rd HEFC course over the following year.


Kirton A. HEFCC Co-ordinator, Northumbria University, HEFC Annual Review 2006/07 (November 2007)



Kirton, A., HEFCC Administrator, In an informal e-mail to the author (5th March 2007 )3 Godard S.; Adnett N.; May H.; Slack S.; Smith E.; Thomas L. s. Overcoming the Barriers to Higher Education (Sep 2007) Trentham Archer L.; Hutchings M.; Ross A. Higher Education and Social Class: Issues of Exclusion and Inclusion (14 Nov 2002) Routledge Falmer
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Barnett, R. Higher education: a critical business. (1997) The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press. McDowell, L. Enterprise Education and Part-time students. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. (1993) Vol 18 (3):187-204. Bowl M. Non-Traditional Entrants to Higher Education (Sep 2003) Trentham Tight M. Key Concepts in Adult Education and Training (Oct 2002) Routledge Falmer; 2nd Ed. Burke J. Accessing Education: Effectively Widening Participation (Jan 2002) Trentham