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The University of Southampton

New study finds that social networks influence adults’ potential participation in higher education

Published: 22 May 2008

The educational decision making of adults who have not participated in higher education is greatly influenced by social networks consisting of family, friends and work colleagues, according to a new study published by the University of Southampton today.

The research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), focused on people aged over 21 who were perceived as ‘potentially recruitable’ to higher education as they had the necessary qualifications but who had not yet participated. It found that their decisions about participation were strongly associated with the educational experiences of their social networks.

The Rt Hon John Denham MP, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, will discuss the findings and their implications with representatives of local, regional and national organisations with a direct interest in participation issues during the End of Award Conference at the University of Southampton today.

The Minister said:

"I welcome the research launched today - these findings offer valuable insights into older learners' perceptions of and attitudes towards higher education that will directly inform policy making. We want to give everyone who has the talent the chance to go university, whether they're about to leave school or already in work. Every person who has the ability to go to university should also have the opportunity to do so. We must send out a clear message that it is not too late."

With policy makers demanding new insights into and remedies for the continuing under-representation of some groups in higher education, the study has generated new ways of understanding patterns of participation and non-participation.

The research found that:

  • No single agency has the widening of participation in higher education to the adult population as its core mission. It suggests that institutions (colleges, universities, employers, family learning centres and careers initiatives such as Learn Direct) need to develop professional information, advice and guidance (IAG) services providing educational and career advice to adults in the workforce and wider community.
  • The ‘potentially recruitable’ adults included in the research are living comfortable, stable lives and usually see little need to participate in higher education. The benefits need to be made more apparent to this group
  • There is an appetite within this population for high quality, work-related and employer-supported provision, and for recognised qualifications that offer recipients tangible returns. The higher education provision required needs to be easily accessible with flexible and part time modes of learning.

Alison Fuller, Professor of Education and Work at the University of Southampton, and part of the research team, comments:

“Our research has shown that policy messages about widening participation, employer engagement and increasing the proportion of the workforce with university qualifications are not reaching the potentially recruitable group involved in our research. An opportunity is being missed to make provision accessible and responsive to the latent employee demand that the study has revealed.”

Notes for editors

  • The research being reported is based on a two-year project funded by the ESRC, under the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. The project involved research and interviews with representatives of local, regional and national organisations with a direct interest in participation issues and interviews with 16 non-participating adults and members of their social networks. A total of 107 people, with a diversity of socio-economic, educational and employment backgrounds, took part in the network interviews. More information is available at:
  • The geographical focus of the study was Southampton and Hampshire, which offers a mixed picture in terms of higher education participation. Southampton has one of the lowest rates in the country; only 1 in 10, 18 year-olds entering full-time undergraduate courses, whereas in parts of Hampshire the rate is much higher.
  • The ESRC is the UK’s largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.
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