Negotiating Liminality in Higher Education: Formal and Informal Dimensions of the Student Experience as Facilitators of Quality

Vanessa Rutherford and Ian Pickup

Introduction and Institutional Background

A belief in the importance of higher education in the new knowledge society has led to a massification of higher education globally (Loukkola and Zhang 2010) and an associated rise of professional administration and management processes. These include an increase in demand for quality assurance (QA) processes, such as those contained within the European Standards and Guidelines (European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education 2009). Concurrently, the student population across Europe is becoming increasingly diverse (Finnegan et al. 2014) creating a key challenge for higher education institutions: how best to serve the twin aim of supporting all students to succeed, whilst fostering a high quality and inclusive higher education experience.

In this paper, we examine research that feeds into policy making at University College Cork, Ireland (UCC). We examine micro level human experiences and interactions that impact learning. We are less concerned with compliance, assessment regulations, reporting and performance indicators. Rather, we focus on the research into solutions and innovations in learning and student development. The University has placed a high priority on developing comprehensive programmes and structures to support student transition and success. Active student participation in the full breadth of student life is a key component of the 'aspired to' high quality experience at UCC.

UCC was established in 1845. There are currently approximately 18,000 full-time students—14,000 follow undergraduate programmes, while 4,000 are engaged in postgraduate study and research. The student body includes 3000 international students presenting 100-plus countries worldwide. The University's Centre for Adult Continuing Education serves an additional 2200 part-time students. The 165-year history of UCC is 'hallmarked by an ethos of excellence' (UCC Strategic Plan 2013–2017, p. 6).

UCC developed a Strategic Plan (2013–2017) through extensive consultation with students, staff, alumni, external agencies and other key stakeholders. The Strategic Plan is aligned with the 'objects' of the University under the Universities Act, 1997 and it is informed by international trends, national policy and by the University's quality improvement and risk management processes. The key strategic mission at UCC: “inspires creativity and independent thinking in a research-led teaching and learning environment. Our students are our highest priority. Through our research excellence we create and communicate knowledge to enhance the intellectual, social, cultural and economic life regionally, nationally and internationally” (UCC Strategic Plan 2013–2017: 13).

Strategic planning at UCC emphasises the development and implementation of organization-wide accountability, leadership, excellence and collaboration in the name of quality. The Strategic Plan acknowledges the day-to-day importance of the student experience. Students are perceived as key stakeholders within the institution. They are identified in the exchange process and there is cognisance that meaningful relationships ultimately provide positive results for all stakeholders. There is an explicit institutional commitment to:

Sustain the current high satisfaction levels in the “…student experience by delivering strong student focused support services and activities which address the physical, psychological, spiritual, social, and cultural and welfare needs of students and by embedding a regular review of the student feedback process to ensure that recommendations for quality improvement are implemented ….” (UCC, Strategic Plan 2013–2017).

The manifestation of espoused strategy at UCC is evidenced through significant initiatives that offer students supplementary admission routes and a variety of academic, personal and social services while studying at third level. These include the National Disability Access Route to Education (DARE)[1] and The National Higher Education Access Route (HEAR).[2] Both DARE and HEAR offer reduced points places, whilst some students applying through these national systems are also afforded places on merit.[3] The Strategic Plan (2013–2017) emphasises the commitment to enhancing accessibility for all students and widening participation through an inclusive environment that embraces diversity and equality. The focus on equity of access to higher education is a macro national priority and has been clearly articulated as such in the Irish Department of Education and Skills Higher Education System Performance Framework (2014)–(2016). This Performance Framework also sets out a range of high level system indicators to assess and measure the higher education system's performance in this priority area (Higher Education Authority 2014). The proposed vision for the future of higher education in Ireland is clearly set out in a recent consultation document:

Over the period of this National Access Plan (2014–2017), in partnership with other stakeholders, Irish higher education will become a more fully inclusive system that enables more citizens, irrespective of age, socioeconomic background, disability or other factors to access in, participate in, and complete higher education and achieve their full potential, as part of the overall social and economic development of Irish society. Access to higher education will be intrinsic to what a higher education institution does, interlinked with teaching and learning, research and civic engagement (HEA 2014).

At UCC, strategies are formulated amid dense interplay between macro global and national challenges, an individual strategic agenda and organisational identity and history (Kegan 1994, p. 34). The strategy-as-practice approach which emphasises practical, everyday student life actively shapes UCC's university plan and seeks to understand and address stakeholder demands. Cultivating this 'stakeholder friendly culture' (Leap and Loughry 2004) offers the potential to construct positive experiences and smooth transitions.

This paper explores liminality in the higher education student experience and the ways in which student experience theory has the potential to further advance into policy and practice at an institutional level, facilitating improved student empowerment in learning. In this paper, we focus on epistemological and ontological shifts in identity and relationships over the course of a student's university journey. Student identities are thought to evolve, as participation and engagement in higher education are experienced over time (Wortham 2006). Student experience incorporates critical thinking, independent learning, fossilization of identity, development of relationships, valuing of diversity and inclusion, consideration of multiple perspectives and collaboration. We see a need to establish and further develop innovative support structures, and equip students with 'threshold capital' that helps them to negotiate challenging and sometimes troublesome learning and development situations, to open up and move along the spectrum of liminality—to transition their learning (Land 2012).

  • [1] DARE is a college and university admissions scheme that may offer places on reduced points to school leavers with disabilities
  • [2] The Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) is a college and university admissions scheme which may offer places on reduced points and extra college support to school leavers from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds
  • [3] In Ireland applicants are ranked in order of merit of performance at school leaving examinations and this is called the points system. Each applicant's score is calculated by allocating points for grades achieved in one sitting of the Leaving Certificate examination
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