REACT Conference 2017: Next steps for addressing barriers to student engagement for ‘hard to reach’ students

by Nathaniel Pickering and Liz Austen

sheepThis photo was taken at the REACT Conference 2017, held at the University of Winchester. If you look closely you can see a collection of sheep grazing amid the meadow grass. Whilst these sheep (made of fibre-glass) are said to emphasise the host’s commitment to environmental sustainability and biodiversity, this obscured, unreachable display appeared to symbolise the ‘hard to reach’ focus of the event.

The Conference brought together 15 institutions who had been working alongside the REACT initiative for the past 18 months.


The term ‘hard to reach’ students aligned all conference presentations with the wider student engagement agenda.  Discussions comprised both practical and conceptual approaches to student engagement.  This included the role of the Student Union, effective mapping of engagement, the distinction between academic /social engagement and the notion of partnerships.

REACT conf
Our presentation, titled ‘Creation and Confidence: BME students as academic partners at Sheffield Hallam University’, presented a distinct set of findings.

We talked openly and honestly about the difficulties faced in actioning curriculum interventions designed to impact on BME attainment. We presented a series of quotes – some real, some fictionalised, but all based on our experiences with this project.  Attendees were asked to consider this perspectives, and the room was filled with discussion.


Our experiences clearly resonated with the audience. The following Storify collection of relevant tweets clearly highlights the support from other institutions – click on the image below or here to view them.

storifyWe have discussed our project work and reflections elsewhere in this blog, and a more detailed analysis will soon be published in the REACT special edition of The Journal of Educational Innovation, Partnership and Change.

Reflections on Hard to Reach Students

During the REACT conference, different ‘groups’ of students were defined/identified as ‘hard to reach’, including commuter students, BME students, engineering students, white male students, students from low socio-economic backgrounds, young +, disabled, and the undereducated. All of these definitions came with a caveat that they are contextual and institutionally bound and that it is difficult to put people into groups.

What struck us was how many of our students at SHU would fall into one or more of these categories, and maybe this is why the term is not used at this institution. Perhaps the focus on these student characteristics highlights more the issues with institutions’ ability to communicate and engage with a ‘non-traditional’ student body that has resulted out of widening participation and the massification of Higher Education.

This binary approach oversimplifies the heterogeneous nature of an individual student’s identity, and ignores the diverse and complex groupings a student belongs to. Lawrence (2005) argues that the real challenge arises ‘from how this diversity is perceived and managed?’ with institutions often responding with ‘deficit’ approaches, approaches that focus on the problems generated’.

During our time working on the REACT project, we came across many deficit approaches to explaining/justifying the BME attainment gap, which we discussed in our presentation. There is little or no focus on where BME students are doing significantly better than their White counterparts because the success of the Higher Education experience has become synonymous with getting a first or upper 2:1, and entering successfully into the job market. For Evans in “Killing Thinking: The Death of Universities” (2004, p. 151) this focus is systematic of the “overall diminution of the essential function of the universities which is to educate, and not train”

Evidence from the SHU UK Engagement Survey (UKES)* shows that our UK fee paying BME students are significantly* performing better than their white peers in a number of key areas. The difference is seen most starkly in relation to civic skills development (see Graph 1). For many these skills encapsulate the very purpose of Higher Education which is to educate, including Evans (2004, p.46) who views them as contributing to a student’s ‘ability to recognise the relationship between ideas, and how to evaluate them’.

BME Graphs

There is no doubt that the eradication of the BME attainment gap has got to be one of the highest priorities for the Higher Education sector, and that approach cannot be deficit model, but an inclusive one that draws on each student’s strengths, and benefits the whole student body.


Lawrence, J., 2005, July. Addressing diversity in higher education: Two models for facilitating student engagement and mastery. In Higher education in a changing world. Research and Development in Higher Education, 28. Proceedings of the 2005 HERDSA Annual Conference (pp. 243-252).

Evand, M., 2004. Killing Thinking: The Death of the Universities. Bloomsbury. London

* A chi-square test for independence (with Yates Continuity Correction) was used to indicate significant associations between BME students and specific UKES questions