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Constructing the Higher Education Student: a comparative study of six European countries

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - EUROSTUDENTS (Constructing the Higher Education Student: a comparative study of six European countries)

Reporting period: 2018-02-01 to 2019-07-31

1. Introduction

There are currently over 35 million students within Europe and yet, to date, we have no clear understanding of the extent to which understandings of ‘the student’ are shared. Thus, a central aim of this project is to investigate how the contemporary higher education (HE) student is conceptualised and the extent to which this differs both within nation-states and across them. This is significant in terms of implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumptions that are made about common understandings of ‘the student’ across Europe – underpinning, for example, initiatives to increase cross-border educational mobility and the wider development of a European Higher Education Area. It is also significant in relation to exploring the extent to which understandings are shared within a single nation and, particularly, the degree to which there is congruence between the ways in which students are conceptualised within policy texts and by policymakers, and the understandings of other key social actors such as the media, higher education institutions and students themselves.

The Eurostudents project comprises a significant body of work that, by the end of the project’s five year duration, will have: developed a new theoretical framework for understanding the ways in which the higher education student is conceptualised, based on an innovative and inter-disciplinary comparative approach; generated a comprehensive and cross-national dataset on constructions of the higher education student; and established international networks that will provide a platform for taking forward research in this field after the grant has ended.

The proposed work will also have a considerable impact on the Principal Investigator’s (PI) own career development, through: consolidating her research leadership experience by giving her experience of managing a six-nation comparative research project and mentoring more junior staff within the research team; providing her with dedicated time to publish widely across several academic disciplines; and extending her profile further amongst the international research community.

2. Objectives

The research proposal is underpinned by four discrete but overlapping objectives:

• To generate new knowledge about the ways in which the higher education student is constructed by different actors within a single nation-state (policymakers, the media, higher education institutions and students themselves), and across six different European nations;

• To establish a new inter-disciplinary theoretical framework to understand these conceptualisations of the student, drawing on perspectives from education, sociology, social policy, human geography and cultural studies;

• To build research capacity in this area through: bringing together a team of researchers to conduct the project; establishing European and international networks on constructions of the higher education student; and fostering inter-disciplinary collaborations;

• To consolidate the considerable research leadership experience the PI has already gained in her career to date, through: extending her experience of managing a research project and team of researchers; developing a new inter-disciplinary theoretical framework; and engaging in high-profile dissemination and engagement activities.

3. Innovation and potential impact on the field

This project is innovative in a number of ways. Firstly, it will provide the first, cross-national study of the ways in which the higher education student is constructed within Europe. Data is being collected from six different European countries (Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain) chosen to provide diversity in terms of: ‘welfare regime’; date of accession to the European Union; level of tuition fees payable by European students for ‘first cycle’ qualifications; and the nature of student support systems. Unlike previous research that has focused on top-level policy docum
The first 18 months of the grant have been devoted to setting up the project and undertaking a significant proportion of the data collection. We have also conducted some networking visits to other scholars working in the field and disseminated initial findings at a variety of conferences and seminars. All objectives as specified in the initial proposal for the first 18 months of the project have been met.

1. Setting up the project

The research team was recruited prior to the official start date of the project, and the individuals (two full-time post-doctoral researchers and a PhD student) began work in the autumn of 2016. We also recruited seven members of the project Advisory Group (Susan Wright, Aarhus University; Lea Meister, European Students’ Union; Aina Tarabini, Autonomous University Barcelona; Barbara Kehm, Glasgow University; Maria Slowey, Dublin City University; Carlos Vargas-Tamez, UNESCO; Marek Kwiek, University of Poznan) and held our first meeting with the group in February 2017. Group members have provided ongoing advice and guidance throughout the project so far (for example, giving feedback on the choice of documents for the policy document analysis, and helping to secure access to various research sites in their own countries).

During the first month of the project we set up a project website ( and Twitter feed (@eurostudents_ ). These have since been used on a regular basis to disseminate our various activities. The Twitter account now has 956 followers. In addition, we have developed a logo for the project, which is used in dissemination activities alongside that of the European Research Council.

Ethical approval for the project was secured from the University of Surrey in February 2016. In the first six months of the project we piloted the various research instruments and attended bespoke team training on the NVivo software analysis package. A state-of-the-art literature review was conducted during the initial months of the project, which was published as an article in the journal Compare (see details below) and has informed subsequent stages of the research. We have also written various short pieces to advertise the project, including a blogpost for the Society for Research into Higher Education (published in January 2017).

2. Data collection

We have collected data for all four strands of the project, in accordance with the timetable set in the original proposal.

Strand 1. Policy Constructions
Sixteen policy documents were selected for each of the six countries in the project (with the exception of Poland, where 12 were collected). These comprised four relevant texts (addressing higher education students) from each of the following groups: speeches by government ministers responsible for higher education; key government strategy documents; documents produced by staff and students’ unions; documents from organisations representing graduate employers. Those not available in English were translated, and all were coded and subsequently analysed using the NVivo software package. Coding in this strand, and in strands 3 and 4 below, has been conducted in line with a coding frame that the team developed during the first six months of the project and which has been updated on an ongoing basis subsequently. The policy document analysis has fed into four of our publications to date (see details in section 3 below) and several of the presentations. In addition to the document analysis, we have begun interviews with four or five key policymakers or ‘policy influencers’ in each of the six countries. By the end of January 2018, we had conducted four such interviews in England and five in Ireland, and policymaker interviews had also been set up for later in the year in Denmark and Germany. All interviews conducted to date have been transcribed and uploaded to NVivo (to be coded and analysed once this strand of data collection is complete).

Strand 2. Media Representations
The PhD stu
1. Key findings to date

The first eighteen months of the project have been devoted largely to data collection, and the majority of the analysis and dissemination has been planned for month 24 onwards. However, to date, we have written five articles and one book chapter based on some of our initial findings; the key arguments of these are summarised below.

1.1 Policy Constructions

1.1.1 Analysis of English policy documents

Our analysis of ways in which students are constructed in contemporary English higher education policy suggests that, first, and contrary to assumptions made in the academic literature, students are not conceptualised as ‘empowered consumers’; instead their vulnerability is emphasised by both government and unions. Second, it identifies other dominant discourses, namely that of ‘future worker’ and ‘hard-worker’. These articulate with extant debates about both the repositioning of higher education as an economic good, and the use of the ‘hard-working’ trope across other areas of social policy. Third, it shows that differences are drawn between groups of students. Contrasts are drawn, for example, between international students, juxtaposing the ‘brightest and best’ with those who are considered ‘sham’. Finally, it argues that the figure of the ‘vulnerable’ student and ‘thwarted consumer’ feed into broader government narratives about its policy trajectory, legitimising contemporary reforms and excusing the apparent failure of previous policies.
Key reference: Brooks, R. (2017) The construction of higher education students in English policy documents, British Journal of Sociology of Education (online first)

1.1.2 Analysis of policy documents from all six countries, with respect to student mobilities

Within the extant literature on patterns of mobility of higher education students to and from Europe there is some recognition that these differ across geographical space – in relation to variations in national uptake of the European Union’s Erasmus scheme, for example. However, strong similarities are also often identified – about the way in which mobility is desired by students, higher education institutions and national governments, and how this is stimulated, in part, by various European initiatives such as the commitment to forging a European Higher Education Area. Moreover, while scholars have critiqued normative expectations of mobility – pointing out, for example, that not all students have the necessary social, cultural and economic resources to support a period of study abroad – there has been less critical focus on the way in which constructions of the ‘mobile student’ vary spatially. Based on our analysis of 92 policy documents from the six European nations, we argue that, while some convergence is notable, particularly in relation to the ways in which student mobility is placed centre-stage within internationalisation strategies, key differences are also evident – with respect to: the scale of desired mobility; the characteristics of the imagined ‘mobile subject’; the extent to which social justice concerns are brought into play; and the prioritisation given to outward mobility. These raise important questions about the degree of ‘policy convergence’ across Europe and the ostensible homogenisation of European higher education systems around an Anglo-American model.
Key reference: Brooks, R. (under review) Higher education mobilities: a cross-national European comparison

1.2 Institutional Perspectives

1.2.1 Analysis of institutional websites from all six countries, with respect to the construction of students as customers or academic novices

We have explored the positioning of students and the use of corporate branding features on higher education institution websites in our six countries (chosen, in part, because they have different governance regimes). Using multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA), we explain the variance by country an