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Access to higher education courses transform lives, study finds

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Access to higher education courses transform lives, study finds

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Published by University of Leicester Press Office for University of Leicester in Education and also in Communities

Access courses that give adults a second chance are succeeding in transforming lives, boosting self-confidence and enabling people to fulfil themselves at work, a new study has shown.

Researchers at the University of Leicester found that adults on Access courses gained transferable skills and a better understanding of themselves as learners. Before joining the courses, many lacked confidence in their abilities.

“Their lives were transformed by skilled tutors -- teachers who adapted their teaching of skills and knowledge to meet students’ needs and gave them prompt  feedback on their learning tasks,” says Dr Hugh Busher, a Senior Lecturer in Leicester’s School of Education who conducted the study with Dr Nalita James, a Senior Lecturer at the University’s Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning.

“The fact that the teachers respected the students and treated them as adults with busy schedules and family commitments helped the students to develop as learners. As they grew in confidence they began to organise their own collaborative learning face to face or online, for example via Facebook.”

Based on a survey of 365 students at seven further education colleges in the Midlands and on 21 focus group interviews with 60 students, the research examined how Access to higher education courses changed people’s attitudes towards themselves, their families, friends and the world at large. It also looked at how the courses developed the skills and knowledge the learners needed to enter university.

A report on the findings says many students struggled to make ends meet while seeking to improve their skills and qualifications. They were losing wages to attend college, coping with multiple demands at home and finding it difficult to secure the benefits they needed.

Their main motive for embarking on an Access course was to gain more satisfying and fulfilling employment, not necessarily to gain higher pay, the research found. Most learners wanted to better themselves to improve their lives.

One student said: “I’ve been working in customer service for a long, long, long time. Figured maybe there must be more to this, more to work and do something that I feel has more value than just serving people.”

The three main reasons students gave for dropping out of courses were finance and family-related problems and “not being able to handle it”, which was usually related to the heavy workload and not achieving high enough grades for university entry.

Students who had been on the verge of dropping out said that excellent tutor support and an individual, flexible approach by staff kept them on the course.

Staff in the FE colleges gave extra tutorials, marked students’ work quickly and gave them feedback on how they could improve. Tutors gave up a huge amount of time for this, according to Dr Busher.

A Dissemination Event for the Phase Two of the Research Project on Wednesday 4 December will further discuss the importance and value of Access courses and the significance of the study at a time when there is much policy debate in the UK both nationally and locally about educational access and widening participation.

Clive Marsh, Director of Lifelong Learning at the University, said: “Research into reasons why adults come back to learning in later life, or find their way via many different routes into Higher Education, is vital at the moment. It’s also crucial to know why people stay, and why they find it hard to continue studying.

“This research makes a major contribution to our understanding of how adults can be helped into learning, and to keep on learning, for their own and society’s benefit. It’s to be warmly welcomed.”

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