Widening access and student non-completion: an inevitable link? Evaluating the effects of the Top-Up Programme on student completion
This paper explores the links between socio-economic disadvantage, non-completion in higher education and preparation initiatives. It does this through investigating the effectiveness of the Top-Up Programme, a preparation course for 17 and 18 year olds from schools that have low participation rates in higher education. The University of Glasgow, on behalf of the West of Scotland Wider Access Forum, has responsibility for running the Top-Up Programme. It is part of the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council and local education authority funded GOALS (Greater Opportunity of Access and Learning with Schools) Project. The paper examines the hypothesis that students who undertake programmes such as the Top-Up Programme can counteract the effects of disadvantage through being prepared academically. The investigation is undertaken within the contexts of widening access research and theoretical models of student non-completion. This study reviewed the available data for the 44 schools involved in the Top-Up Programme, their levels of disadvantage as defined by their participation rates in higher education, and levels of non-completion at the University of Glasgow. This revealed that groupings of schools with extremely low participation levels have higher non-completion rates than less disadvantaged schools. At the same time, the authors attempted to investigate this finding further through examining a group of 44 similar comparative schools. The students' perceptions of the effectiveness, in terms of preparation for higher education, of undertaking the Top-Up Programme were also assessed by conducting interviews and administering questionnaires to the Top-Up students and other groups of students. The Top-Up students perceived that it had provided highly relevant preparation and had eased the transition from school to higher education. The effectiveness of the Top-Up Programme was also quantified by reviewing the pass/fail rates of the first-year students who had undertaken Top-Up in comparison to those who had come from the comparative groups. The results indicated that the Top-Up students were progressing at better rates than the other groups despite many more having come from the extremely low participation schools, known to be 'at risk'. The main outcome determined was that there is a link between attending an extremely low participation rate school and non-completion, despite similar pre-entry qualifications to other students. This indicates that disadvantage continues to impact on students' achievements throughout their educational careers. We argue that the result has implications for both wider access policies and non-completion research.
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