Forgotten Learners: Stepping up to higher education at Staffordshire

21 Mar 2018

Ashley Cotton, Manager of Staffordshire University's Step Up to Higher Education programme, writes about the life-changing success the university has had at progressing older learners into HE.

Providing real opportunities for mature students and underrepresented groups is something Staffordshire University places a great emphasis on within its focus as a Connected University. As such, our bold approach to support and widening participation initiatives play a central role in allowing us to work positively with a diverse range of students. Through impactful initiatives, we continue to see a steady increase in access to higher education, enabling a greater number of mature and part-time students in realising their potential and accessing programmes that work for them. While at the same time, bucking the trend of national figures, which show a steady decline in the number of mature and part-time learners.

One initiative that has proven to be particularly successful is Step Up to Higher Education. This is a short, Level 3, part-time academic programme that develops the academic skills-set and self-efficacy of students involved. The course itself prepares participants for the rigours of undergraduate study and gives them the self-confidence to hit the ground running when they begin a degree. Over the last academic year, the Step Up to HE programme has connected and empowered a wide range of students from all walks of life, with 55 students progressing on to undergraduate courses in September 2017. This means that over the past two academic cycles we have seen over 100 students progress to undergraduate programmes through the Step Up to HE foundation certificate. Many more former participants over the programme’s seven-year history have now graduated and find themselves in employment or continuing their academic journeys through postgraduate study. These ‘game changer’ students, as I like to call them, now represent a range of professions from, to name but a few: paramedics, social workers, lawyers, right through to games designers.

However, for me, the transformative power of education is not just about employability and gaining a degree. But crucially, developing students from not only an academic, but also a personal perspective plays a central role in improving the outcomes and future chances of the learners we support. As such, throughout the programme, we place great emphasis in working towards nurturing and developing the self-confidence of each learner. This approach is embedded throughout the 10-week programme, which in turn helps support a fantastic student experience, high levels of retention and a truly positive and rewarding experience for each student. Through my role in this programme, I am continually exposed to fantastically engaged and academically able students who excel  –  and who never perhaps envisaged higher education as a possibility before!

Nevertheless, it is important to note that each student’s success is not just limited to academia. During my time at Staffordshire I have also seen Step Up alumni making waves in their careers, and their communities, and I’ve watched them carve out positive and rewarding futures for themselves and their families. For instance, I have worked with and witnessed students who left school at the age of 12 with no formal qualifications become first-class graduates. This example is one of many that I feel really encapsulates the transformative power of education and how it can really provide a second chance for many of its learners. To that end, my work leading on the Step Up to HE programme has shown me that students from under-represented groups can and do flourish.  And how providing a holistic approach to support, coupled with inspirational and flexible programmes can really help to ensure students with a range of needs find their place within higher education. With this in mind, it is important that we continue and strive to do more to champion and vocalise the contribution, value, and place mature and part-time learners have within our universities.

Read the report in full here