Higher Education, especially in cases where an institution has limited diversity, often entails the adoption of a series of social norms. Just to give a few examples, in Higher Education a student may be expected to:
- have certain pre-existing cultural/social knowledge which wasn’t imparted by their background
- participate actively or challenge lecturers in lessons, but come from a top-down educational culture
- participate in social and sports activities to which they previously had no exposure
- adjust to environment where their own religious practices are not integrated into everyday life
- complete Higher Education, even without significant support from their family and/or community
These sort of difficulties often mean that students who overcome the barrier of accessing higher education, drop out early due to a feeling of lack of belonging or due to an inability to adapt to life in higher education.
Interventions designed around helping students adapt to life in Higher Education, including through information, counselling and support. The IDEAS project has collected several examples of interventions by NGOs and by universities which work with students to help them through the challenges of a university education:
- Academic Advancement Programme at UCLA
- Tu Kahika Programme in New Zealand
- Peer Counselling at the University of Mainz
- Mental Health & Employment Service in the UK
- POP-Corner at the University of Leiden
- Peer Assisted Study Support at Queen Mary (United Kingdom)
Our research indicates that the following good practices form an integral part of many of the successful interventions:
Providing Safe Spaces
Safe environments are usually a physical space where students can feel comfortable, interact with other students like themselves, engage in social activities which may not be shared by the rest of the campus and find mutual assistance and support. They can take the form of dorms, activity-centres, student-club premises etc. The logic behind the spaces is that while students should be expected to integrate with the overall culture of the institution, this should not be at the expense of ignoring their own unique characteristics and heritage. Safe-spaces are not supposed to be refuges, and in this sense they can only work within an overall safe environment, provided for by appropriate anti-discrimination policies.
Examples from Practice
- The Tu Kahika Programme includes a foundation year for Maori students who wish enrol in the health sciences. During the foundation year, the students are given guaranteed accommodation together in a residential college so as to foster whanaungatanga (a sense of family and belonging)
- The Academic Advancement Programme at UCLA aims to provide a ‘safe haven’ (Vincent Tinto) for students who come from a background where college is not the norm therefore the program and competencies of staff and peer students involved in the program are aware of the difference in social and cultural capital.
Successful interventions go to great efforts to mitigate all of the multiple deprivation factors which may affect students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Thus, they will usually provide support in the form of:
- Information, in particular to cultural norms predominant with university life
- Psychological counselling as necessary
- Support in obtaining any study-skills they may not have obtained in earlier education
Examples from Practice
- Peer counselling at the university of Mainz combines a legal support service, financial advice and a grants service into one office, run by the student union
- The Mental Health and employment service in the London borough of Hackney advocates on behalf of students with mental disabilities and is student led, the students set their own goals and support is tailored towards each on a case by case basis. Examples of support include, referring students to the college’s Additional Learning Support & Inclusion Team for in class support, the college’s Student Welfare & Advice Team for benefit and housing related issues, and helping university or job applications. The service advocates and refers to appropriate services. It is not a mental health service, but an education service, there is no clinical role
Easily accessible reference points
As an adjunct, to the above point, many interventions understand that, especially during early phases of Higher Education, support works best when it is administered by trusted reference points which are easily accessible. To this end, many interventions include a ‘buddy’ element whereby a new student is paired with another student, who acts as the former’s friend, mentor and guide as well as the interface between the more formal support services the student’s everyday campus life.
Examples from practice
- The POP Corner at the University of Leiden has been centrally located within the social sciences and humanities faculty as a place to offer various services to students. It is open 5 days a week so as to help students to find their way through the maze of buildings, navigate courses and curricula and (find the right places and methods to) further develop relevant skills-sets to improve their attainment and/or increase academic challenges. One of the services provided includes the ad-hoc mentoring of freshmen by older peers.
- PASS, at Queen Mary, is a course-based mentoring scheme where first-year (and sometimes second -year) students are given the opportunity to bring queries and topics to explore with higher-year students (mentors) in an informal and friendly environment, to help them settle into university life, the department and their studies. It runs as a voluntary, drop-in scheme.