Is co-curricular engagement the key to success for ‘hard to reach’ students at the University of Exeter?

Chris Guggiari-Peel


In the UK higher-education sector there are currently groups of students, such as those from an ethnic minority, who tend to achieve less well than their peers (Richardson, 2008). There are also students, currently ill-defined, who engage less with their university and are hence perceived as ‘hard to reach’. Although there has been much research into the social benefits of student engagement, the potential link with academic success has not yet been formally investigated in the UK. This study explores this missing factor by looking at specific forms of co-curricular engagement alongside particular demographics of students and their levels of retention, attainment, and Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) outcomes so as to understand better the link between student engagement and academic performance. The study used data from the University of Exeter, dating back to the 08/09 academic year, as well as definitions of ‘engagement’ and ‘hard to reach’ that are unique to this study. ‘Engaged’ denoted participation with one of four, long-running, co-curricular activities: Change Agents, Grand Challenges, Peer Support and Student Representatives. ‘Hard to reach’ students were chosen as those who were from an ethnic minority, lower performing schools and low socio-economic backgrounds. These three groups do not represent all potentially ‘hard to reach’ students at Exeter, but data on ten further groups were not available for research purposes. Across all students in the study, and for each specific ‘hard to reach’ group, those who engaged with a co-curricular activity achieved a higher proportion of 1st and 2:1s, were less likely to withdraw and reported a higher proportion of positive DLHE outcomes. The question of who exactly are ‘hard to reach’ at Exeter was hence made more difficult, as it transpired that those groups selected were actually proportionally more engaged than the wider cohort. Also, the usefulness of grouping various disadvantaged groups together as ‘hard to reach’ was questioned. This was because the three ‘hard to reach’ groups’ levels of success were found to be more different from each other, than the collective ‘hard to reach’ group was from the ‘not hard to reach’. Overall, engagement with co-curricular activities seems to act as a leveller and as a means for all students to reach their academic potential. 

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