24 Oct 2022

Interview with Cassie Lowe, University of Cambridge

In this interview, we talk to Cassie Lowe, Senior Teaching Associate at the University of Cambridge. She has written and researched in a number of learning and teaching areas, but the thread of student engagement has remained a key focus. Publications include a 2017 Systematic Literature Review of "Hard to Reach" Students and Methods of Inclusive Engagement. This work was part of a larger research project, funded by HEFCE (broadly the forerunner to England’s Office for Students), which explored the impact of student engagement on attainment and retention, with a particular focus on the then-called ‘hard to reach’ students.

1. Tell us a bit about your journey in education so far, and what got you interested in student engagement originally.

I started my higher education journey in 2013, undertaking a BA (Hons) in English Literature with American Literature at the University of Winchester. I joined the institution as a first-generation student from a military family, so higher education was an entirely alien landscape to me. I tentatively raised my hand at the Student Academic Representative election thinking it was time I stepped outside of my comfort zone – having never been on school councils or the like before – and started to try to get more involved in activities outside of my degree. The number of extra-curricular opportunities I was involved in grew from there, but what was more, the resultant effect of my uncertain raised hand at that initial Student Rep election fostered a willingness to start to reach others who perhaps, like me, felt quite lost in the sea of acronyms, systems, and expectations. I wanted my peers to see how engaging in extracurricular opportunities could enrich the university experience, and so I think I really started ‘working’ – loosely using the term – in the field from there. I certainly started advertising opportunities and making recommendations to friends far earlier than I was employed to do so!

In terms of my professional career, I first worked in the Students’ Union at Winchester (WSU) as the Student Engagement Assistant, responsible for the coordination of the Student Academic Representatives and the Student-Led Teaching Awards. I then moved to the University in the Learning and Teaching team as a Research Officer, with a particular focus on Student Engagement and co-leading the Student Fellows Scheme with the Vice President Education at WSU. I stayed in this team for seven years, later becoming a Senior Researcher Learning and Teaching, leading modules on the MA L&T and mentoring applicants for Higher Education Academy accreditation AFHEA-SFHEA. In 2022 I moved to the University of Cambridge as a Senior Teaching Associate in the Cambridge Centre for Teaching and Learning (CCTL).

2. Congratulations on that new job at the University of Cambridge! What does it involve, and how does it intersect with student engagement?

Thank you, it is a very different institution with a completely different way of working and organising learning and teaching, so I am finding my feet slowly in what is a very unfamiliar landscape. Interestingly, alongside continuing to teach on their PGCLTHE and mentoring Advance HE accreditation applications, my work here at Cambridge brings me back to student engagement and student-staff partnership. It is a completely new context for me to be working within and each step must be taken wisely and purposefully with respect to the institution’s very specific context. I am in the throes of writing some ‘working with students as partners’ guidance for the collegiate university as we speak, which is framed differently to that which I might have produced for, say, Winchester, where the partnership approach to project work through the Student Fellows Scheme has been in operation for ten years now.

3. In 2017, you were the lead author of an influential literature review about “hard to reach” students and inclusive engagement, which you have recently submitted to our Resource Library. It’s perhaps an obvious question, but why is this an important aspect of education, and how did the research project come about?

The systematic literature review formed part of a wider HEFCE-funded project, Realising Engagement through Active Culture Transformation (REACT), exploring “hard to reach” students and the impact student engagement initiatives had on student attainment and retention. Alongside the research strand, there was a collaborative development programme which worked with 16 universities across the UK to research, support, and enhance student engagement practices within these institutions through various areas of focus. At the heart of the REACT project was a requirement to bring to the fore a greater understanding of the student demographic at each institution and, therefore, the representativeness of the students engaged in extracurricular opportunities. This culminated in the focus on the term “hard to reach”, which, in its initial use, sought to explore the barriers some students may face to their engagement. This was with a mind to exposing potential barriers to engagement and working to dismantle them to make more inclusive opportunities for a wider student body. This was, and remains, a central focus for student engagement practice, with excellent research and work going on across the sector to work towards making opportunities available for the widest portfolio of students, through tackling barriers some students are facing to engaging to their fullest potential.

4. We like how you put “hard to reach” in inverted commas in the report’s title. It raises questions about whether it is the student who is hard to reach or whether those doing the reaching are in the wrong place. How do you view the phrase?

The term “hard to reach” brought with it some heavy semantic implications and the more we unpacked it – both as a REACT project team and with our collaborative partners – the more we took issue with the phrasing. We knew that it required greater interrogation and that its uncritical use risked further alienating the very students we were seeking to include. The systematic literature review of “hard to reach” students provided a fuller understanding of how the term was being used in higher education scholarship, who the term was being used to describe (if defined by any demographic or characteristic at all), and what methods were being offered in the literature to work towards providing more inclusive engagement approaches. However, as we began to untangle the implications of the term, we sat increasingly uncomfortably with it and, therefore, the task at hand, which explains our use of double inverted commas.

To start to work through this, the team working on this element of the research project began to explore some of the issues with the use of the term in the concluding chapter of the literature review, to caution against its use uncritically without consideration to the power imbalances at play with the phrasing of “hard to reach” students. The term, when used to describe students, suggests the onus is on students to become within reach, and to make themselves more readily available to engage, often overcoming barriers outside of their control. It also affirms the imbalance of power, whereby the institution has the power to reach, and the students must wait to be reached by a privileged centre.

5. Do you propose a better term?

It was not necessarily the place of the literature review to critique the phrasing more fully, though we do unpack this to a degree in the conclusion. I felt this work was unfinished in terms of my own thoughts and so I have gone into greater depth in developing the understanding of “hard to reach” as a descriptive term in my recently co-authored book chapter, ‘Accessibility to Student Engagement Opportunities: A Focus on ‘Hard to Reach’ Universities’ in Advancing Student Engagement in Higher Education: Reflection, Critique and Challenge (to be published early 2023). In this chapter, we propose that it is not the students that are “hard to reach” but the university’s initiatives, which place (often unintentional) barriers to wider student engagement from diverse students. We argue, therefore, that it should be “hard to reach” universities, not “hard to reach” students.

This shifting of the language to describe the university as “hard to reach” realigns responsibility and places the deficit on the institution to identify and dismantle barriers. We also offer some considerations and practical steps to do this. What is key is that the responsibility lies with the university to ensure that it continually evaluates and reflects on practice to see what barriers are in place and what can be done to remove them, where possible. Through doing this, an increasingly diverse student body can choose their level of engagement with the university’s activities, rather than having this decision made for them by encountering barriers to access.

6. Moving on from that specific phrase and debate, what were the main findings in your literature review? Were you surprised by anything?

What was tricky about doing the literature review was that inevitably, as the categories started to establish themselves, we were able to quantify the number of times a particular group – by virtue of demographic or personal characteristics – were cited more frequently than others. This did not equate to a certain group being “harder to reach” per se, but, rather, that the literature focused on these groups more than others. I was surprised by the frequency with which scholarship would refer to “hard to reach” students without being more specific about to which students they are referring. Given the potential for the term to be stigmatising, and the range of complex power relationships and responsibilities under-pinning those viewed through this label, it is concerning that it is used with little justification or rationale. This is particularly an issue when assuming a shared understanding of who “hard to reach” students are.

I was also surprised at the use of the term outside of higher education, particularly that of its use in other educational contexts to refer to parents of children as being “hard to reach”. The same linguistic implications for the term also rest in this setting, so perhaps this application of the term, too, requires greater scrutiny – though I don’t have the expertise to speak with authority on its use in this context!

7. Five years later, do you think your report’s conclusions still stand today about where our sector needs to go on inclusive education?

I think it in order to move forward as a sector, it is important to take a considered assessment of where we are now and where we have come from, so that we a make better informed decisions about the future. In many respects the literature review provided us with a greater understanding of this term, which at the time was gaining momentum as a phrase used within higher education to describe students that were not engaged in particular activities and contexts. The sector has since shifted away from this term for the reasons outlined previously, but I believe the REACT project provided a great opportunity for the sector to critically consider and dissect the phrase so that we could move forward and, in many cases, away from its application to students.

However, despite the phrasing, at the heart of this work was a commitment to inclusive practice and this is undoubtedly one of the most crucial considerations for all student engagement practitioners going forward, both within and outwith the classroom. The term “hard to reach students” might not be our phrase of choice anymore (if, indeed, it ever was), but the students identified in the literature review do still require greater consideration to ensure our practices are inclusive and welcoming to the widest portfolio of students that they can be.

8. And we’ve arguably learned a lot as a sector about inclusive engagement in the past couple of years, with the pandemic revealing and exacerbating many inequalities and changing the dynamic of how we engage and hear students’ voices. What are your reflections on where the sector should go now?

The pandemic certainly exacerbated the divide between groups of people in all walks of life, and at all educational levels. We really did become “hard to reach” universities as we closed our physical doors to students, whose form of engagement might have been sitting in our cafes on campus to meet with their peers. However, this reimagining of what engagement “looks like” brings to the fore an important question: when we think of an engaged student, what do those engagement habits and activities look like? Who sets the parameters for this and are we taking a narrow view of this? Our perception of “what counts” as engagement might be situating some students as being disengaged who are feeling perfectly fulfilled in their higher education experience, but feel their energies are best placed elsewhere – perhaps with family or wider communities. During the pandemic, when all students were behind screens and closed doors, we were forced to reposition our minds towards engagement in a useful way in many respects.

The pandemic also forced us to boldly adventure into previously uncharted waters of engagement practice. Through these experimental modes of delivery, we were often able to reach a greater diversity of students. Anecdotally, at Winchester I was an Editor for the student research journal Alfred and moving our student editorial panel meetings online opened up the opportunity to those who might not have felt they could engage due to barriers such as commuting costs or time commitment to attend in-person meetings. As Editors we had made our opportunity “hard to reach” through not considering the possibility of moving the meetings online (not that the technology was quite so readily available to all staff and all students at that point).

I think this is the legacy the literature review has had for me and hopefully some others. It makes you think more critically about your own practice and how you are working so that the greatest diversity of students can engage. The literature review also invites us to identify where there are barriers to engagement and how you can work to dismantle them. We can always do more, and this is an ongoing process, but once we see ourselves and our activities as “hard to reach”, student engagement practitioners can start to take greater ownership of these barriers so that we work hard to diversify the students that can engage.

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Thanks to Cassie for being an interviewee. To suggest a future subject for interview, please contact us.

This interview is part of a series of occasional interviews on our website with student engagement practitioners – both staff and students, and from within Scotland’s university and college sector and beyond. The interviews aim to capture the different perspectives that people have on student engagement in the quality of learning.

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