Stories of Access in Higher Education: a triumph (or failure) of hope over experience?

Stories of Access in Higher Education: a triumph (or failure) of hope over experience?

Susan Oman, Jon Rainford, Hilary Stewart

Getting ‘in’ and getting ‘on’ in Higher Education (HE) are two issues that are often conflated in ways that ignore what it might mean to ‘get by’ in an institution. According to the current National strategy for access and student success in HE, “[c]onsiderable progress has been made in widening access and achieving student success in recent years.” These claims largely refer to a trend of increased youth participation, which masks the prohibitive changes to HE for older students. Furthermore, these trends tend to overlook the inequitable experiences of those from marginalised groups of all ages who do ‘get in’, as they have to formulate adaptive tactics to ‘get by’ in the institution before they can attend to ‘getting on’.

Shortfalls in access data to represent inequality of experience might be addressed by the recent fascination with monitoring and stratifying ‘success’ and ‘the student experience’. Tools such as the National Student Survey (NSS), have been “capturing final-year undergraduate students’ feedback on their course experience since 2005.” However, the survey has only one question on ‘experience’, and while it allows students to respond in their own words, these responses do not appear in any analysis found in our initial review of official reports. Free-text responses are labour-intensive to analyse substantively on this scale, however their lack of visibility is often indicative of an endemic devaluation of what respondents feel important (Oman 2015). This is especially concerning when one report reflects, “particular aspects of [student] experience may vary widely depending on their expectations, and there are significant gender and ethnicity differences in level of satisfaction.” The report continues by attributing variation of response to a lack of reliability in the students’ answers, rather than accounting for a need to address actual difference in experience.

We think the lack of attention to these forms of data on these kinds of experiences calls into question what and who is valued by surveys like NSS, and HE more broadly. It seems that responses that do not fit with the institutional expectation become marginalised by default. Duna Sabri explains that The NSS’s universal measure of ‘the student experience relies on a ‘highly delimited construct of both ‘student’ and ‘experience‘’; and as such, the survey performs in ways that appear to offer voice for students, but simultaneously deprives them of agency. Sabri concludes that the NSS creates a homogenised ‘student body’ experience, rather than accounting for different experiences of student bodies. There is a clear discrepancy between institutional claims to listening to, and improving student experience and access and practice. This can be largely understood to be what Sara Ahmed described as “non-performatives” as what these texts ‘do’, is at odds with how what they say is ‘taken up’. In this piece we draw together some of the student experiences which seem to be overlooked in the current ‘student experience’ moment, and in doing so we contribute to a body of literature which questions the equitable experiences of Higher Education for all.

Marginally placed persons, whether this is in terms of class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality or disability, have been shown to experience devaluation. Whether ‘value’ is economic, social, cultural or symbolic, so-called marginalised groups struggle to gain legitimacy in self-formation, as their everyday practices are often seen as ‘valueless’. This manifests as a perception of deficit, with pressure to compensate and conform to institutional norms. Those who fail to do so, are often obscured. While someone may hold institutional membership on paper, they may not feel they are a part of ‘the student body’, or they have to blend into it in such a way as to lose part of their identity.

Despite efforts to recognise difference, the academy still privileges certain experiences associated with traditional values. External characteristics, such as voice or style of dress, still collide with the culture of the institution, even for staff. As Lisa McKenzie has stressed, the experiences of working class academics are still shaped by prejudice and assumptions. Similarly, Kalwant Bhopal and June Jackson’s research has recently highlighted the ways in which subtle differences in practices for black and minority ethnic academics can make people feel like “’outsiders’ in their own university”. Although ‘diversity’ measures are satisfied, those bodies marked as diverse remain excluded and unsatisfied. Moreover, what so often goes without acknowledgement within the university is the value that different experiences bring to institutional culture for students.

This is especially true for students who may share a perception of themselves as ‘outsiders’. As Gary, from the Paired Peers project describes, the feeling that you need to ‘tone things down’ is common in working class students: “It was very difficult for me at the beginning just purely down to my accent. I was the only one with this big broad Bristolian accent, I wasn’t the only Bristolian there but definitely with the accent. And I’m quite common sometimes in my mannerisms so my sense of humour and the sort of things I’d say. So I weren’t tryna act posh or anything like that, but yeah I’d try to tone done the accent a bit, look a bit more upright, look a bit more intelligent and all of that… My whole body language and the way I talk, everything would change you know.”

Gary feels as if he ‘changed everything’ so that he could look a bit “more intelligent”, in order to get by. Class-based marginalisation, identified by projects such as paired peers, intersects with other factors, such as gender, age or sexuality, to further complicate relationships to the cultural expectations of the academy.

Manchester based researcher, Rashida Bibi has been looking at experiences of mature British Muslim South Asian women, specifically how they negotiate cultural and religious spheres in order to access education. Bibi’s research reveals how mature students often have to manage multiple identities in ways that younger students do not, which is more acute for Muslim women, who feel they are failing to meet expectations of their community, family, and the institution. As one of Bibi’s participants explained, “maybe it’s just me…But I remember walking home and people thinking she should be carrying babies not books” (Bibi, 2015).

Bibi’s work also prompts us to challenge prevalent stereotypes in the academy, particularly the passive Muslim woman. Supportive structures are often based on a student’s category, rather than their personal need, and ignorance has been known to try and encourage a student to ‘come out of themselves’ (whether they need to or wish to) in order to mirror, more convincingly, a preconceived idea of what a student might look like, or how they might act, much in the same way as Gary’s classed experience reveals.

While Bibi’s research highlights the additional difficulties experienced by particular intersections of age, gender, religion and ethnicity, HE institutions have by-and-large failed to adapt in a way which might address the taken-for-granted social and spatial practices which inhibit inclusion for disabled students. For example, Peter explains how he is excluded from the most basic level of access, a seminar room, and left in the rain on regular occasions: “The access to the seminar room was through an outside door (fire exit) and it’s a double door and it’ s horrendously difficult to get into … even with someone pushing me it’s difficult. The first two years they wouldn’t give me a key … those doors are always locked for security reasons …which made it awkward if it was raining, I would have to wait outside” (Peter, in Holloway, 2011: 603)

That the systems took two years to account for Peter’s access needs by giving him a key, rather than changing the room, is indicative of how disabled students are disadvantaged by procedures that prioritise the security of property over the safekeeping of persons. Access for disabled students, as any ‘other’, does not end at the point of entry to a course, or the building. Teaching programmes are designed with non-disabled students in mind; and where changes are made to teaching styles or resources, they are often done in such a way as to address a perceived deficit in the student, rather than accounting for diversity of need at the point of course design. Were student experiences better accounted for, this would be less inevitable and as Boys and Shakespeare point out, listening to the different experiences of disabled students disrupts the conventionally ‘storyable’ dominant social practices (2009).

For too long, acceptance into the academy has been based on individuals adapting to the cultural conventions of the institution, instead of the institutions valuing a diverse range of cultures within it. The ‘build it and they will come’ approach to HE often does not level the playing field but simply reinforces existing privilege. Being able to get on in HE should not be simply about adapting into a pre-formed set of values. Whilst access to entry to University for certain demographics may have improved, shared and individual experiences suggest that many students still do not feel included.

Despite the recent focus on the ‘student experience’, we have shown how only certain forms of experience, from certain types of student are ‘being included’ in this narrative. Stories of access that would give rise to the positive and ethical change in HE systems, appear to be those overlooked by the current interest in ‘student experience’ results. As such, despite hopeful claims to the contrary, neither the experience of a homogenised student body, nor those who are marginalised from it, seem to be serviced effectively by the ‘student experience’ initiative.

Bibi, R (2015) ‘“I understand how the world works much better”: British South Asian Muslim women and experiences of Higher Education’ presentation at Re-appropriating Value(s) in Higher Education, University of Manchester, 25 June 2015.
Boys, J., & Shakespeare, P. (2009). Occupying (dis) ordinary space. Piggott, L., & Houghton, A. M. (2007). Transition experiences of disabled young people. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 26(5), 573-587.
Holloway, S. (2001) The Experience of Higher Education from the Perspective of Disabled Students, Disability & Society, 16:4, 597-615.
Oman, S. (2015) ‘‘Measuring National Well-being: What Matters to You?’ What Matters to Whom?’, in Cultures of Wellbeing: Method, Place, Policy (eds.) Blackmore and White. Palgrave MacMillan.


Susan Oman is a PhD researcher, based at the University of Manchester looking at the politics of well-being and participation, she is interested in the politics of data and method; in particular, the re-use of free-text survey data to address inequality issues in evidence-based policy practices. Susan currently convenes a postgraduate unit called ‘performing research’, but has worked on equality issues in HE for almost ten years, and was recently awarded a bid to understand belonging and well-being in the postgraduate community at the University of Manchester.  Jon Rainford is PhD researcher at Staffordshire University and a widening participation practitioner. He is interested in the intersections between policy and practice and the relationship between academics and publics through digital technologies. He is also co-convenor of the British Sociological Association Postgraduate forum.  Hilary Stewart is a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow. Her research interests are disability studies, social theory, Bourdieu and bodies. Her work has explored the attribution of value to bodies through a consideration of the embodied and psychosocial sense-making processes of habitus and how issues of access and inclusion symbolically sustain and reproduce the socio-cultural work of disablism.