The face of higher education is changing. With pressures on funding and a cap on the number of students entering universities, there is a need to ensure that those who are lucky enough to snap up a coveted place are supported and encouraged.
The launch of a new Centre focused on student retention and achievement at the University of Wolverhampton is therefore extremely timely.
The Virtual Policy Centre will draw together expertise at the University to further enhance the student experience and make the transition into higher education as smooth and as effective as possible.
The key thinking behind the programme is that new University students are thought of as being ‘first years’, but in most cases this is really their 14th year of education.
The University’s Education Partnerships department has an established reputation for building links with local authorities, schools, colleges and training providers to lead the transformation of learning in the region, and therefore has extensive knowledge of the first 13 years of a child’s education career.
In addition, the University’s Institute for Learning Enhancement (ILE) has carried out in-depth research into student retention and satisfaction at higher education level. It is hoped that developing closer collaboration between these two pools of knowledge will significantly benefit the student experience and create a national centre of expertise.
Dr Henriette Harnisch is the Interim Deputy Director of Education Partnerships, and is one of the driving forces behind the new Centre, along with Professor Glynis Cousin, Director of the Institute for Learning Enhancement.
Henriette says the aim is to carry out research across the whole education sector from primary right through to higher and disseminate the findings internally and externally. “Too often, transition points become exit points,” Henriette explains. “When pupils move from primary to secondary school, they cannot physically exit but it becomes an exit in terms of attainment – some will hit a wall in their learning as the environment is too alien. This is the same from GCSE to post-16 and then to university. It is not about numbers – it is about successes, however we define that, whether it is the quality of student experience or academic attainment.”
There are four key themes for the work of the Virtual Policy Centre in relation to the student experience – transition, progression, retention and achievement.
“Improving the student experience is vitally important. We have a lot of expertise at Wolverhampton and we are trying to bring that together and galvanise it, so when people talk about student transitions they want to know what the University is doing and saying on the subject,” Henriette adds.
The Virtual Policy Centre will deliver a number of activities, including a series of themed seminars, including one about Transition to HE, and a conference to enable academics and teachers to share expertise.
There are also plans to influence education policy, so the development of briefing and working papers will be a key strategy.
In terms of research, Henriette gives an example of a Website Fundamentals module which was run for sixth form students remotely by the University as part of the Higher Education Modules in Schools (HEMiS) scheme. This allows sixth form students to collect credits towards degrees in a range of courses. Academics looked at how sixth form students learn and find the assessment methods within higher education. They will compare this with the experiences of undergraduates studying the same module to develop a broader understanding of the approaches of the different age groups.
The new Centre will draw on the lessons learnt from the University’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL), which focused on research into the first-year student experience and came to the end of its funding cycle this summer. Led by Professor Glynis Cousin in the last two years, the CETL produced a number of concrete outcomes and fresh understandings relating to the improvement of student retention.
Professor Cousin says: “We are keen to build on the success of the CETL. We are producing briefing papers on every strand of work the CETL undertook so that we can disseminate the lessons learnt, the practical steps we have taken and the knowledge our work has generated.”
As the whole higher education sector heads into a new and challenging era, the findings from the research of the new Centre will help to influence opinion and drive forward new developments in learning.
But right at the crux of the aims of the Virtual Policy Centre is the student experience, and how universities can continue to transform and enhance the lives of thousands of students from a broad range of backgrounds.
It is with this aim at its heart that the centre aims to contribute to the new face of higher education.