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Who are ‘hard to reach’ students and how can we engage them?

UCL is involved in a HEFCE-funded project alongside 13 universities to identify 'hard to reach' students and the student engagement initiatives to enable the university to work with them as partners.

Teaching & learning teacher student

1 February 2017

Halfway through a two year project, REACT (Realising Engagement through Active Culture Transformation) is investigating student engagement and student experience, including retention and attainment, with a special focus on so-called ‘hard to reach’ students. The purpose of REACT is to identify and share best practice to advance student engagement nationally. The project is a Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funded project, led by a core team from the University of Winchester, the University of Exeter and London Metropolitan University.

UCL is participating in the REACT project by developing a case study, focusing on identifying exactly who our ‘hard to reach’ students are, what barriers may prevent them from engaging with us and how best to overcome them.

Dr Jenny Marie (Director, UCL ChangeMakers) is leading UCL’s involvement as it closely aligns with UCL’s ChangeMakers initiative which funds staff and students to work together on educational enhancement projects.

Dr Marie explains: “We are particularly interested in data such as student survey response rates including the NSS, PTES, PRES and Student Barometer response rates, Moodle usage, progression rates and the presence of student academic representatives in departments. We worked with three students last year, who interviewed staff and students about their views on ‘hard to reach’ students in their departments and how we can engage them more. We will compare these views against other data available such as reasons for withdrawing from a programme and comparing demographics of engaged students with UCL’s wider demographic.”

The team are keen to use this information to find out more about potential barriers which stop students from actively participating in university life, both academically and socially. Comments have already flagged how being ‘hard-to-reach’ can often be down to circumstances rather than wilful disengagement, with personal responsibilities, financial restraints and a disjoined campus cited as barriers to getting involved.

Confusing communications has also been identified as a possible barrier, with a recent focus group of UCL Transition Mentors highlighting how important information can become lost amongst the noise of department, faculty and institutional messaging. They suggested that this, along with time pressure, led some students to stop attending sessions.

Working towards a REACT conference in the next few months, the team are aiming to identify as many potential barriers as possible and begin developing possible solutions. Some of these may build upon UCL’s key initiatives such as UCL ChangeMakers, the recently-launched You Shape UCL campaign which supports staff to disseminate how student feedback has directly contributed to UCL and Liberating the Curriculum, part of the Connected Curriculum initiative, where students explore belonging interventions to help overcome feelings of isolation at university.

If you are interested in finding out more about the project, please email Dr Jenny Marie: j.marie@ucl.ac.uk.