Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The open door: the transition of an access student?

Access to Higher Education courses open a door to a university place for adult learners without formal academic qualifications. Researchers at Leicester’s Schools of Education and Lifelong Learning are examining how these courses change the people who step through that door.

For those with few or no relevant qualifications, the door to studying in Higher Education (HE) has historically been closed. Aimed at social groups who are typically under-represented in HE and at disadvantaged individuals, the Access to HE course, overseen by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), can provide a way to open this door. A one year diploma designed to offer a unique route into HE for adult learners (aged 19+), the Access to HE course provides an entry point into university for individuals who left school without the necessary qualifications.

2010/2011 saw the highest ever number of Access student registrations, with 45,000 adult learners studying on the 1,289 Access courses currently offered across England and Wales. Focused on different subject areas, there are a range of Access diploma pathways available, from Access to Nursing and Midwifery to Access to Social Science.

Whilst Access courses have been successful in providing a route into HE for these learners, in the context of the Government's commitment to widening participation in HE among under-represented groups, Access students have tended to be ignored. Despite the rhetoric of ‘Access to Higher Education’, shifting education policy is emphasising the need for HE to recruit and retain students to deliver future economic growth and social mobility, rather than creating opportunities for students to 'participate' in HE.

Due to a lack of up-to-date research, little is known nationally about the processes of transition and identity transformation that students experience on the Access course, particularly in the current economic, social and political context. Funded by AIM Awards and the British Academy, and supported by the QAA, the Opening Doors Project is being conducted by researchers from the School of Education and from the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning, to address this lack of empirical evidence. Building on a successful pilot study, the Opening Doors Project is carrying out research at seven Further Education Colleges in the East Midlands to find out why these students, who generally have few formal qualifications, wished to gain entry to Higher Education via the Access course route. The research also examines how their perceptions of themselves as learners transform whilst on their Access journey, how their identities shift, and how their educational participation ties in with Access policy.

When first enrolling on the course, Access students tend to be hesitant and unconfident learners, often as a result of previous negative learning experiences, and from having been out of education for several years. Many of these individuals, are also parents and workers performing a constant juggling act trying to manage the pressures, demands and responsibilities arising from all areas of their lives. Consequently, whilst the Access course can open the door to HE, once having stepped through this door, the social and learning transitions experienced by these individuals are complex.

Dr Nalita James

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