By Steve Wyn Williams (Staffordshire University)

As part of a longstanding commitment to provide real progression opportunities for mature students and underrepresented groups, Staffordshire University has been delivering, for the last seven years, the Step Up to Higher Education programme.  This is a part-time, accessible academic programme for mature students who are looking to progress on to a range of courses at Staffordshire University. It is designed specifically for individuals who may have been out of education for some time and develops the academic skills-set and self-efficacy of students involved. The course itself prepares participants for the rigours of undergraduate study and gives them the self-confidence to hit the ground running when they begin a degree. The course is 10 weeks in duration and is split into two 15 credit modules at Level 3.

Over the last academic year, the programme has connected and empowered a myriad of students from all walks of life with 55 students progressing on to undergraduate awards in September 2017; with an additional 48 students from the 2015/16 academic year. This means that over the last two academic cycles we now have seen over 100 students on undergraduate programmes across all academic schools who began their education journeys through Step Up to HE.  Many more former participants over the programme’s history have now graduated and find themselves in employment or continuing their academic journeys through postgraduate study. These ‘game changer’ students now represent a range of professions from, to name but a few: paramedics, social workers, lawyers, right through to games designers.

However, as Ashley Cotton (Manager of the Step Up to HE Programme) notes:

“For me, the transformative power of education is not just about employability and gaining a degree. But crucially, developing students from not only an academic, but also a personal perspective plays a central role in improving the outcomes and future chances of the learners we support. As such, throughout the programme, we place great emphasis in working towards nurturing and developing the self-confidence of each learner. This approach is embedded throughout the 10-week programme, which in turn helps support a fantastic student experience and a truly positive and rewarding experience for each student.”

The programme focuses on helping students develop and underpin the key academic skills required for degree level study whilst also having an emphasis on developing each learner’s self-efficacy  to succeed within a higher education environment. Whilst on the course students receive practical and professional 1-2-1 advice on writing the perfect personal statement to support them in completing their UCAS and Student Finance applications so as to make them ‘university ready’. Both the teaching and pastoral support experience on the programme has had a positive impact on student confidence and has contributed to high levels of student retention.  

Again Ashley Cotton notes: “My work leading on the Step Up to HE programme has shown that students from under-represented groups can and do flourish.  And how by providing a holistic approach to support, coupled with inspirational and flexible programmes students with a range of needs we can help to ensure that they can find their place within higher education. With this in mind, it is important that we continue and strive to do more to champion and vocalise the contribution, value, and place mature and part-time learners have within our universities.”

In a city where the proportion of those aged 16-24 with a NVQ level 4 qualification is 11% below the West Midlands average and 17% below the national average, an important aspect of the programme has been partnership working. During the last seven the years the programme has developed collaborative stakeholder relationships with the local authority, Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Adult and Community Learning Team and the North Staffordshire YMCA based within the city. The fundamental premise of these collaborative relationships is to engage and break down some of the perceptions of higher education across the city. The partnering through these relationships has proved beneficial with a number of learners from our Local Authority partnership starting on to undergraduate awards with a growing number of students from the YMCA now also on university level courses. This is an inspirational and extremely positive way of improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged and deprived students in the City of Stoke-on-Trent.


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