Newman University student Daniel, shares his views on the importance of focusing on foundation year experiences.

Starting at University can be a very new experience for some individuals and a daunting one indeed for some students – I remember the first few weeks of my first year at HE having being out of education for some time and it was very scary and I felt intimidated by the sheer size of some Birmingham Universities I had visited. Newman University offers a small and collected cohesion within its walls, something that I felt attached to straight away (I’ve now returned as a mature student with parental responsibilities). That shift from secondary school or further education (FE) into higher education (HE) is ‘conceived as linear progression through a number of phases’ (Gale and Parker, 2012). These phases focus on pre-transition, transition, orientation or induction, the importance of a foundation year (FY), middle years and final year experiences. These phases ultimately aid not only personal development and growth, but how we settle into University life and transition successfully both before and upon completion of a degree. This journey is at the heart of the changing face of Universities.

As I speak to fellow students currently engaged in FY programmes, and receive feedback from first year students who share a similar view, I often wish I had taken up the opportunity after realising how important it is to other students here at Newman and how much it benefits them in preparation for transitioning into year one. This highlights just one of the key areas of ‘phases’ by Gale and Parker. Additional further research also acknowledges that FY programmes are hugely beneficial; precisely why Newman University not only recognises this but puts so much emphasis on improving not only the FY programme but also HEADstart and Welcome Week.  Newman has also moved into offering a two-year humanities degree programme that offers value for money with the full benefit of a three-year-degree programme. This followed much research conducted by myself and fellow students within Staff-Student-Partnership-Projects (SSPP). Having engaged in this type of research for two years now, I myself also recognise the huge importance of enhancing the student experience through meeting and personally engaging with the above criteria, or through the volunteering opportunities offered at Newman.  Both have aided my own development but also helped pursue further research into this area.

Previous conversations with a range of academics and students have shown that red brick Universities continue to offer a degree programme that demonstrates very little interaction between student and lecturer. My research indicates that students now desire much more than this type of a simple in-and-out-degree.  Studies conducted by myself show that students require social integration and a sense of belonging (from both fellow students and staff) as just one of the important factors among a huge range of other factors (Gale and Parker, 2012). These other factors in research that has students’ needs in mind, include but are not limited to; use of social spaces; professional engagement (includes participation in academic, pastoral and professional development services); impactful interventions; supportive peer relations; meaningful interactions (with students and staff); developing confidence and an identity and last but not least a HE experience that is relevant to current interests and future goals (Thomas, 2012). Within FE and especially HE, a sense of belonging is crucial to students needs and ultimately is what retains a student through the first few weeks of first year. If ‘belonging recognises students’ subjective feelings of connectedness to an institution’ then it is this connectedness to others that retains an individual (Vallerand, 1997, P.80). This benefits students in the sense that they may be; supported; valued; included; accepted and respected in the social environment of the institution (Goodenow, 1993, P.80). The characterization of ‘belonging’ by regular contact and personal relationships offers stability, demonstrates effective concern and are all ongoing ideals that student’s, such as myself, value (Beaumeister and Leary, 1995; in Goodenow, 1993). In the end, developing personal relationships and indeed approaches towards belonging are quintessential yet some institutions function and treat their students as ‘consumers and numbers’- as opposed to individuals with specific and different needs to others. Newmans’ recently published and updated ‘participation and access plan’ from the OFS aims to tackle these issues within retention and engagement this is because again the research suggests, students are more likely to stay and flourish in an institution that values them and their opinions, pushes them to develop, provides regular contact with students and lecturers, and opens up strong career paths. This is something that the University is currently placing at the forefront of its objectives.

When the government chose to drastically raise course and tuition fees for individuals wishing to study at University in 2012 and 2013 consecutively, students began (and still do) to search for courses that offer ‘value for money’, which all the research and Universities focus has now shifted to, including Newman. Progression has shifted to what a University can offer an individual, instead of what an individual can offer an institution. This, then, makes it harder for a student to fully participate or engage and integrate socially which not only affects their retention during ‘phases’ but also affects current and future success as ‘access without support is not opportunity’ (Tinto, 2008). Thus- institutions who recruit students have put into place a strategy to further support students to be successful in their journey. The Office for Students (OFS) has asked of most UK institutions that they meet attainment gaps and retain students from different domestic backgrounds that include but are not limited to; mature students with multi-different needs and WP students (or BAME for Newman). Furthermore, by paying very close attention to the many different ways that students integrate, behave or perform in social and academic standings, staff can intervene if necessary to maintain student retention, success and belonging. This type of engagement within HE develops relationships and promotes connectedness. (Thomas, 2012).  Yet it has been established through study that people with a lower desire to belong may be satisfied with little-to-no-contact, while others with a greater desire to belong require more connections and further social interaction with many individuals from wider groups within the institution. I myself fall into the second category, as I have a desire to connect with the wider community of the institution and an even greater desire to achieve personal goals while at the same time:

  • helping others through their academic sphere i.e. peer mentoring, the course representation system and the like through volunteering opportunities
  • or making life-long connections with like-minded individuals.
This sense of belonging that Gale and Parker, Thomas and further reading by Howard Gardner discuss, is the prime reason for my research. I hope to make it known that as a student I am passionate about supporting other students and developing their own student experience alongside my own through research and managing projects within Newman on a personal level. This type of research as previously discussed is necessary for institutions (as Newman does) to take a students’ experience, no matter their background or year group, seriously and take into account each individual needs and diverse learning processes from ‘year zero’ to a successful final year.