Higher education's many diversities: of students, institutions and experiences; and outcomes?

Brennan, John and Osborne, Mike (2008). Higher education's many diversities: of students, institutions and experiences; and outcomes? Research Papers in Education, 23(2) pp. 179–190.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/02671520802048711


The paper examines the extent to which diversity in the backgrounds of students and diversity in the forms and characteristics of universities combine to produce diversities in learning experiences and outcomes. It draws on a recent major national study in the UK which has been investigating how student learning is mediated by a series of social and organisational factors. Fifteen case studies of student experiences in different universities lay at the heart of the study and provide extensive qualitative and quantitative evidence about the realities of diversity in UK higher education. The paper reports both diversities and commonalities in the student experience and its outcomes, some of which challenge the predominantly hierarchical and reputational conceptions of diversity and differentiation currently dominant in debates about UK higher education. The student 'voice' on these matters as reported here does not fully coincide with current policy priorities and 'voices'. Student perceptions of the ways in which they have changed as a result of the experience of higher education embrace a range of factors within which the social and the personal are at least as important as the academic. Although the focus in this paper is on student learning on undergraduate degrees in the biosciences, business studies and sociology, a model of university learning contexts and settings is presented which may have wider applicability to achieving a better understanding of higher education's increasing diversity.

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