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University of Southampton admissions tutor

Speaker key

JW: Joanna Wynn
JB: Jim Bird


JW: So I am here at the Access to HE Conference with Jim Bird, and Jim is the Admissions Tutor for the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Southampton.  Jim, you have just been working with colleagues from other admissions departments looking at what the Higher Education Provider view is of Access Students, so perhaps we could start, by looking at, 'is an Access Student attractive to Universities, and what makes them attractive as potential students?'

JB: Thank you. Access students are certainly very attractive and indeed the University has a long track record of working in widening participation Access to HE being part of that provision. Many decades of working with a range of Access providers and indeed other possible entry routes that would come under the widening participation banner. My own faculty of Health Sciences, we are a fairly large, I guess, consumer of Access students and generally we have a commission of around about 500 undergraduate students here, the majority for nursing and of those roughly 15% here enter solely on the basis of an Access to HE provision, that number does vary on a year to year but it has been as high as 20% some years.

JW: And do you find that when students come through the Access route, they are well prepared  for study, or do they need a lot of extra support from the University?

JB: No, generally speaking they are well prepared for study, occasionally what needs a little more gentle ease in, is the different routine. So it tends to be this more formal and structured perhaps than college might be, that is part of learning. So generally in engaging with an Access course students will be engaging with learning often for the first time for many years; that is a new experience which, you know, and the first few days, first few weeks, is a little, it is a big learning curve. But as that course progresses they become familiar with that, but going to University is a different experience again. In terms of academic achievement then Access students tend to do well, and in fact Access students tend to have, we are very pleased, with higher attention rates amongst our Access students compared to some other entry routes. I think that is probably because Access students, there are a wide variety people who engage with those programmes, but they tend to be people who have made a very clear decision that they want University, in our case, they want to be a nurse, they want to be a physiotherapist, or whatever discipline it happens to be and they have generally invested a lot into that, a lot of their personal lives, often re-arranging family, often family sacrifices in terms of study and holiday, so we are very conscious that the students with an Access background that apply to us, it is a very clear conscious decision, it is not just a sudden good idea, or we like the uniform or we like something else about it, there's lots of them on TV, in fact it is much more than that, it is usually a very mature, wise decision, that has been carefully explored with family beforehand.

JW: And for people who are new to the whole idea of Access and perhaps are only just starting to think about higher education, could you explain a little bit about how Access works in practice, so from the University of Southampton's point of view, how does it all slot together, how do you work with your local colleges, and what does the student need to know if they are thinking about applying through the Access route?

JB: Okay, certainly I think the key message is to talk. I think to talk, is to engage, and we encourage students, pre-Access, those who are just considering nursing or health sciences, those who have already commenced an Access course, with perhaps a planned output to it, we strongly encourage them to engage with the Access provider, the college, and with ourselves, at all stages.  We run extensive open days, not just for Access Students, but they are our core target. They are targeted within those open days. In terms of ourselves engaging with the colleges and Access providers, we do that regularly, there are a number of colleagues, my own colleagues and indeed myself, who support Access provision locally, we moderate, we liaise, we consult with, or indeed the colleges consult with us.  We invite those colleges into us at least twice a year for a formal introduction to new aspects of our programme, if we change curriculum, if we have some innovations, we always share those with Access providers, at really a very early stage because that, the message, we can’t give all the messages and the messages need to come from Access providers as well. Particularly in terms of applications, that is really important, because we have high standards and we are keen that applicants to our programmes understand what those are. So we clearly don't provide coaching, we don't provide tutorial support, for example for UCAS applications or statements, but we are very transparent about what our expectations are. What we find is that those mature students, the access students, tend to be people who listen carefully to that, they realise it is important information, it is good information, perhaps a little bit more so than some younger applicants, and I guess the maturity of age, of life itself, we recognise that Access students bring that with them, and actually we really like it; we like what we see.  It carries them through the programme.

JW: So those local partnerships are very strong; the partnerships that the University of Southampton has with all the, if I can describe it, feeder colleges, the colleges that offer Access programmes.

JB: Correct.

JW: Is there ever a problem if a student does an Access course in one part of the UK and then wants to go on to Higher Education in another part of the UK; I mean I appreciate the nursing, it is a very popular course, there is lots of Access courses but for some subjects they might study their Access closer to home, or indeed further away and then want to carry on their HE studies elsewhere. Is that something that works well in practice?

JB: It normally works well in practice, and we are seeing an increased application rate of Access students to our programmes from well outside of the Hampshire or Southern England Area, often from Access providers and colleges that we don't know. And occasionally from Access validating agencies that we haven't really had much experience of dealing with and what we always encourage those students to do is to get them to engage with us, is to talk to us and when they are probably pre-course, on the early days of their course, when they are choosing modules, is to give us a ring, or email us, and these are the modules planned or proposed, would those be acceptable? And we will always get back. I think it is that notion of engaging, actually, if you talk to us then we can help.

JW: So would one of your tips be for a student who hasn't even started their Access course perhaps to contact the admissions people at their end choice university, and make sure that what they are thinking of doing through Access or another route meets those requirements.

JB: Yes, I would encourage them to talk to several universities, perhaps ones in their local area, and perhaps if they anticipate moving elsewhere in the country to talk to those as well. Talk to them, go to a range of Open Days, don't just go to one, and when you are there ask specific questions.   Introduce yourself, go to the presenter, and ask specific questions, you know, what is going to make my application stand out? I mean, Southampton, just to put it in context, we have around for midwifery programmes, we have thirty people applying for every place, for nursing it is up to ten applications per place; very popular courses as you said, very competitive entry, and one of the things that makes an application stand out is the fact that the application is aligned somehow to what the university expects. If you talk to several universities, you will get several different ideas, and those are key things to include in the personal statement. The universities will disclose that information, there is no secret it tends to be quite open and that is good preparation. I think a few trips around the country if necessary to open those, yes, it can be a little bit of expense, but it is also a day out, and if you are thinking of spending three or four years away from home at University, that is a really important decision to make, and it is well worth that little bit of investment early on.

JW: Thanks very much, Jim.