Women in Education: Re-evaluating the Student Experience

There has been a clear increase in the participation rates of women in higher education and the trend has been global in nature. The provision and delivery of higher education has changed significantly over recent decades and we have seen a move away from the full time face-to-face mode as the norm to a more flexible and accessible approach. A great deal of effort and resource has gone into supporting the widening access agenda and attracting a broader range of learners. The Welsh Government, the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales and higher education institutions in Wales have made significant strides and displayed a strong commitment to widening access. As a result we have seen a greater diversity of students of different ages, backgrounds and abilities enroll at university. The Welsh Government, in particular, have urged higher education providers to consider adjusting the modus operandi in order to support increased participation. The increased flexibility in accessing knowledge that can be accredited has opened up educational opportunities to a more diverse student demographic. Women have benefited significantly from the change. On the surface, the increased rate of participation of women may seem like a reason to celebrate but once you scratch beneath the surface the picture looks murkier, more complex and represents superficial change. There is evidence to suggest that the glass ceiling is alive and well in higher education.

Universities have made great efforts to increase the range of modes of study currently on offer. There are a decreasing number of students who have the financial capability to study for a traditional degree on a full time basis and the current fee regime may plausibly shrink the full time student intake further. Higher education providers are already transforming their academic portfolio to accommodate the increased demand for part time study, bite sized learning, work based learning and online learning. Women who may be juggling family and work commitments have particularly benefited from the development. The Equality Challenge Unit’s ‘Equality in Higher Education Statistical Report 2013’ highlights that a significantly higher proportion of women than men have tended to choose part time study options and the preference for part time modes of study has been notably prominent at postgraduate level.

The flexible options have enabled women to access and engage with learning and development on their own terms and more importantly, online opportunities have supported women in learning anywhere and at any time. A choice no longer needs to be made between family, career and education as they can increasingly co-exist. The changes to the academic portfolio and support for widening access to higher education have been key developments that have made it possible for women to re-connect with education at any stage of their life. However, I would suggest that supporting access is not an end in itself. We need to be thinking holistically about the experience that students have, ranging from engagement with the academic community through to the culture that they are expected to subscribe to. If one focuses on undergraduate enrolment statistics, the picture suggests a positive shift. However, there is evidently a great deal of work to be done on the student experience once applicants are in situ. The experience of female students has increasingly come under the spotlight, following reports by the National Union of Students and the Higher Education Academy, which highlight issues relating to the student experience and student academic progression and transition.

Debates about the student experience are all too often dominated by the results of the National Student Satisfaction Survey that is completed in the final year of study. The results form the basis of league tables in the public domain and inform the key information sets for each individual programme of study. Part of the problem, in my view, is that the survey largely focuses on a narrow set of variables considered to underpin the student experience. The survey asks questions relating to teaching, assessment and feedback, academic support, organisation and management, learning resources and personal development. The survey scope and design has been subject to intense criticism but there is no doubt that it is here to stay. The areas highlighted in the survey are certainly important areas for benchmarking but I strongly believe that the student experience goes far beyond simple contact with the academic programme and related resources. I would suggest that there are less quantifiable areas of the student experience that may determine the level of participation, engagement and degree of academic aspiration.

When a student goes to university, they are not simply engaging with their chosen programme of study. They are also often exposed to a traditional culture and working environment that is not dissimilar to other professional environments. A recent survey of 2000 participants, undertaken by the Financial Advisor School, suggested that the glass ceiling for women is getting thicker. 70% of men who were polled and 89% of women in the sample believed that the glass ceiling exists. Why do we assume that the higher education sector is any different? A study by Sara Connolly and Susan Long of the University of East Anglia’s School of Economics found that women commonly face discrimination in progressing from senior lecturer to professor. It is disturbing to think that only one in five professors in the UK are women. Moreover, the number of female Vice Chancellors remains painfully low. Only 14% of Vice Chancellors of UK higher education institutions are women. Wales still only has one female Vice-Chancellor, Professor Julie Lydon at the University of South Wales. The academic equality gap is not unique to the UK and appears to transcend national boundaries.

Professor Louise Morley from the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex has highlighted the gender deficit in senior leadership roles in higher education and argued for a greater understanding of the structures of inequality which form barriers for women in their career progression. Morley, in her stimulus paper on ‘Women and Higher Education Leadership’ (2013) for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, argues that there are four analytical frameworks that can be drawn upon to explore the factors that determine women’s aspirations and career orientations: gendered divisions of labour, gender bias and misrecognition, management and masculinity and work/life balance challenges. She suggests that the current deficit represents talent wastage at best and the persistence of exclusionary structures and processes at worst.

It would be naïve to think that the gender deficit in leadership positions in the higher education environment does not impact upon the student sense of belonging to an academic community and their level of aspiration. There is a stark lack of diverse role models in higher education to specifically encourage women to make the transition from undergraduate study into higher level research degrees or to even consider academic careers. The challenge is to identify interventions that can contribute to positive change in the culture of higher education. After all, the statistics paint a worrying picture that has consistency across the majority of higher education institutions. Women are coming into higher education at undergraduate level and then numbers decline significantly when you examine enrolments for research degrees and then decline further when exploring the transition into academic posts. Perhaps we underestimate the ability of students to recognize the barriers highlighted by Morley.

University students are commonly faced with an environment that is not markedly male dominated but has a clear and well documented gender gap at higher echelons. There are enduring and deep-rooted gender gaps that impact upon access, pay, progression and employment contracts. In 2011/12, 53.8% of staff in higher education institutions were women. Once again, a healthy statistic on the surface. However, a closer inspection of the statistics reveals that a significant gender gap persists in terms of the type of employment contracts that men and women may be on. The statistics reveal that women made up 78.5% of part time professional and support staff and 54.4% of part time academic staff. The gender gap at senior grades is clearly visible and although the staff demographic is improving, there are obviously greater challenges ahead.

There are disciplinary differences that are more difficult to unpick. For instance, one would expect a shared demographic in the social sciences as a cluster of related disciplines, however, there are commonly radically different demographic profiles of departments. There are considerable differences between sociology departments and politics and international relations departments, for example. Sociology departments tend to have greater staff diversity and I believe this has a positive impact on the student experience by providing students with a range of role models in addition to a wider range of perspectives. In contrast, politics and international relations departments are commonly male dominated and a former Chair of the Political Studies Association has even raised awareness about the ‘whiteness of the profession’. Is it simply a coincidence that the diversity of the student body narrows significantly through the tertiary education levels and contributes to the replication and reinforcement of the academic demographic profile?

Higher education promotes empowerment, independent study and development opportunities, yet there are often characteristics that are consistent across the student culture and academic workplace culture that seem highly gendered. A report published by the National Union of Students highlighted the growing ‘lad culture’ in higher education that appears to be going unchallenged. The National Union of Students report on women students’ experience of ‘lad culture’ in higher education (2012) highlights that the prevalent culture shapes identities and attitudes and ultimately frames their experience of university life. The experience of female students at university, in terms of the culture that they are surrounded by and the gendered division of labour that they see, will almost certainly shape their perceptions of academia as a career option. If they cannot even visualise working and progressing in an academic culture, as a result of their experience as students, we need to think long and hard about the environment that we have created and are sustaining.

Illustration by Dean Lewis