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Sense of community keeps Widening Participation students in university, report finds

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Students from non-traditional backgrounds are more likely to stay in university if they feel part of the community and are supported in developing positive relationships, a new report suggests.

Published by Brunel University London, one of the UK’s most diverse higher education institutions, the study – Successful Students: Exploring the factors that encourage and enable students from a widening participation background to stay the course – investigated the factors which help Widening Participation (WP) students complete their degrees.

“We wanted to approach the issue of student attrition in a new and more positive way,” said Dr Emma Wainwright, Senior Tutor in Education at Brunel and one of the report’s authors.  “Understanding why people stay at university helps us better understand why some students leave, and what steps can be taken to support those at risk of leaving.”

The study was carried out in two parts – firstly, 143 final-year students (73% female, 26% male) from a WP background completed a 10-minute online survey. 15 students were then selected from the larger cohort for in-depth interviews, which took place over the course of the following 10 months. The students were also asked to keep a photo diary of their university experience, with the pictures later turned into the #successfulstudent exhibition.

For the purposes of the research, WP students were defined as any student in receipt of a full maintenance grant, or from a low participation neighbourhood – in line with Brunel’s definition, rather than the Office for Students definition, which was unveiled after the research was conducted, and which Brunel will adopt alongside other UK universities.

Personal motivation was the single biggest factor for keeping WP students in university, with 93% of respondents saying it was important, and almost 80% of those asked identified the support of their family, friends and peers as enabling them to stay in university. Academic staff, especially personal tutors, and university services are instrumental to degree completion.

Dr Anne Chappell, Divisional Lead in Education at Brunel, and co-author of the paper, said: “The report signals the importance of community and belonging to facilitate positive relationships between students, and between students and staff.”

“This has particular significance for those students who may not receive support from elsewhere, such as friends and family unfamiliar with university.”

In response to the survey’s results, the researchers have developed a series of recommendations, including:

- Creating more social and study spaces to encourage student engagement and inclusio
- Developing student-to-student and peer mentoring programmes
- Providing staff development to encourage wider staff engagement with WP

“Universities need to offer students places to meet and engage with one another – places that don’t require students to spend money, but allow them work and socialise together, and feel that they ‘fit in’,” said Dr Chappell.

Since 2016, Brunel has addressed student attrition through its Student Success Project (SSP), an institution wide programme aimed at supporting all students to success, regardless of their background.

Robyn Fitzharris, Student Success Project Manager at Brunel, said: “This report reaffirms to me that Brunel’s approach to supporting our students is the right one – although of course, there’s always more to do.

“Through the SSP we’ve funded a number of initiatives designed to help students from all backgrounds understand what an intrinsic, valued and loved part of our community they are.

“These include great projects such as the Liberated Library, which set out to diversify the books in the university library by including more works by women, BAME and disabled authors. 

“We’re also working directly with the university’s individual departments to help them better identify and support those students most at risk of dropping out.

“Recommendations such as the ones in this report really help everyone understand the unique issues that our students face, whilst highlighting some of the things we can all do to help. 

The report Successful Students: Exploring the factors that encourage and enable students from a widening participation background to stay the course, by Dr Anne Chappell, Dr Ellen McHugh and Dr Emma Wainwright is available for free download. 

Reported by:

Tim Pilgrim, Media Relations
+44 (0)1895 268965