In September 2018, I had the opportunity to present the findings from the literature reviews undertaken by myself and Dan as part of the wrap project at the International Conference of Undergraduate Research (ICUR). The title of our presentation was ‘Widening Participation in Higher Education through Undergraduate Research‘.
For some background context, Widening Participation (WP) and Undergraduate Research (UR) are two areas of increasing importance in the UK Higher Education (HE) landscape. UR, as an institutional movement, seeks to refashion the role of the student from a passive recipient to an active partner in the production of academic knowledge. Through our research, we have learned that UR presents a unique opportunity for universities to better integrate students into communities of academic practice, as it facilitates the development of a ‘researcher’ identity both in a personal and socio-professional sense.
The aim of the presentation was to show that by bridging this knowledge about UR with WP-related themes of diversity and inclusion, UR can function as a tool for breaking barriers and creating opportunities for the academic engagement of underrepresented students. Through UR, underrepresented students have the chance to acquire the social and cultural capital that is needed for success within and beyond HE. We have found that UR participation is correlated with:
- higher retention rates,
- better academic performance, and
- increased transition to graduate study.
ICUR 2018 provided a great platform for us to disseminate our current knowledge and engage with undergraduate students and academics involved in UR, and it contributed to the wrap project’s wider aim of determining the methods of best practice upon which UR opportunities can be modelled to be more accessible and accommodating for all students.
ICUR 2018 was an experience of ‘firsts’. It was both the first conference that the wrap project’s work was presented at and my first experience of presenting at an academic conference. I was expectedly nervous about the process and presentation itself, but every moment was an opportunity to learn something new – from writing the abstract in May through to presenting in September – so in hindsight, I am very glad to have taken the opportunities.
— wrap project @ Warwick (@wrap_warwick) September 25, 2018
ICUR 2018 was also an incredibly rewarding experience because I was able to share what we had been working on for several months in a welcoming space to an audience that valued the knowledge and were willing to engage with it, asking questions and furthering the conversation. The fact that ICUR brings together undergraduate student researchers from across the world to share the experience of presenting and learning was also exciting and I left the conference feeling hopeful that my presentation had potentially inspired reflection about UR, diversity and inclusivity beyond the UK academic context.
Questions following the presentation arose concerning issues such as the experiences of mature students in UR, whether UR schemes should be voluntary or compulsory and how events like ICUR fit into the picture of UR that wrap is trying to paint, metaphorically speaking.
Two questions/comments that prompted reflection pertinent to our research were:
How can underrepresented students be catered for when the students who are ‘underrepresented’ in your context aren’t in ours? (asked by a Monash South Africa student)
This was an interesting question because it initiated a conversation about the importance of considering context when making UR and HE in general more accommodating for all students. In my answer, I acknowledged that different contexts will naturally give rise to different situations and so a ‘one size fits all’ approach would not be appropriate. I emphasised the need for institutional reflection and reflexivity – there may be practices that are seemingly given or taken for granted, of which the impact may be detrimental to student groups with certain characteristics. I also tried to make the point that whilst it can be difficult to see underrepresented students, this does not necessarily mean that they are not there. It can often be institutional practices and structures that preclude students with certain characteristics from engaging, thus making it difficult to see them. Therefore, contextual reflection is crucial for informing which groups are underrepresented, whether there are practices that constitute barriers to their engagement and which opportunities are available to best suit their needs.
Research can be a demanding activity and gives rise to its own challenges regarding issues such as mental health and wellbeing. How effective can UR truly be? (asked by a Warwick academic)
In answering this question, I wanted to emphasise the point and key finding from our research that UR is most effective when it is part of the institutional culture. Approaching UR as a separate activity or entity can lead to missing opportunities to discuss the practices used to administer UR in wider conversations on issues such as student support and wellbeing. Adopting a more holistic approach (which is the conclusion we have formed from the literature reviews) means that UR and WP move from being separate afterthoughts to being relevant to other institutional activities and agendas. It should be said that, of course, UR is not the panacea to all barriers and problems that students face in HE, but by engaging in processes of better learning, it can be continually improved to give as best of an opportunity it can to students who would benefit the most from it.
If you are interested in reading in the areas of WP and UR, here are some of our key sources:
- Hinton-Smith T, ‘Introduction’ in Hinton-Smith T (ed), Widening Participation in Higher Education: Casting the net wide? (Palgrave Macmillan 2012)
- Morgan M (ed), Improving the Student Experience: A practical guide for universities and colleges (Routledge 2013)
- Thomas L, ‘Barriers and Opportunities Created by the Post-Compulsory Education System’ in Thomas L (ed), Widening Participation in Post-compulsory Education (Continuum 2001)
- Vignoles A and Murray N, ‘Widening Participation in Higher Education’ (2016) 6(2) Edu Sci 13
- Yorke M and Thomas L, ‘Improving the Retention of Students from Lower Socio-economic Groups’ (2003) 25 Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management 63-74
- Baxter Magolda M, ‘Three Elements of Self-Authorship’ Journal of College Student Development (2008) 49(4) 269-284
- Brownell J and Swaner L, ‘Outcomes of High-Impact Education Practices: A Literature Review’ (2009) 12(2) Diversity and Democracy 4-6
- Healey M and Jenkins A, ‘Developing undergraduate research and inquiry’ Higher Education Academy. (2009) <https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/developing-undergraduate-research-and-inquiry>
- John J and Creighton J, ‘In practice it doesn’t always work out like that. Undergraduate experiences in a research community of practice.’ (2013) 37(6) Journal of Further and Higher Education 750-768
You can also download the presentation slides here: WP in HE through UR presentation
The full paper, which is comprised of the literature reviews and was produced to support the ICUR 2018 presentation, will be made available soon!