29th January 2018

Commuter students have less good outcomes than students who move away to study. This includes a weaker sense of belonging; lower rates of continuation; fewer first class and 2.1 degrees; greater academic failure; and less likely to get a graduate job. Interviews with 60 commuter students from nine universities explored their experiences of student engagement in academic, enhancement and social activities, and university responses.

You can read the report here >

11th April 2017

The report from the What works? Student retention and success change programme is launched at a full-to-capacity conference in London. Download the full report and summary report here.

In the context of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) improving student retention and success, particularly for students with particular characteristics and studying subjects with high rates of non-continuation, has never been more important.The two What works?programmes of research have contributed significantly to understanding about student retention, success and excellence.
Prior to the What works?studies the most common approach was to ‘fix up students’ through bolt-on interventions to try to retain them. This was very ineffective as the students most in need of additional support were often the least likely to access it. Following the first phase of the What works?programme our understanding moved to the importance of facilitating students’ engagement and belonging in their academic learning as the most effective way to improve the success of all students. Building on this we can now understand that it takes a whole institution to work together to provide an excellent learning experience for all students and maximise their success in higher education and beyond.

The report extends our knowledge about effective interventions, and contributes significantly to our understanding of the process of implementing change in a complex organisation – and provides a model to support institutions to plan and improve student experiences and outcomes.

View Summary Here >

View Final Report Here >

Professor Liz Thomas has been appointed to the panel for the Teaching Excellent Framework (TEF), Year 2 as a widening participation expert, being selected from over 1,200 applications. Liz is honoured to be appointed and very much looking forward to working with colleagues from across the sector and beyond to recognise and reward excellence in learning and teaching, and help shape the future of the higher education sector.

September 2016

Social Mobility in HE
I’m looking forward to chairing part of the Policy-UK Forum on Social Mobility in HE on Thursday (Read Report Here). Promoting social mobility is a hot topic at the moment as the Higher Education and Research Bill enters the committee stage in the House of Commons, and meanwhile the Prime Minister has announced introduction of seemingly oxymoronic ‘inclusive grammar schools’. In addition HEPs are to be charged with improving attainment in schools through either sponsoring a state school or setting up a free school – although there is no evidence that schools working in collaboration with HEPs are attaining any better than their peers. We do indeed live in interesting times!

April 2015

Improving social inclusion in higher education
In September/October 2014 Liz Thomas was part of the expert team for PL4SD (peer learning for the social dimension, funded by the European Commission) who visited Croatia to carry out the country review. The PL4SD country reviews provide an external and comprehensive review and critique of initiatives and measures undertaken by a country to support social inclusion in higher education. They are intended to assist countries in the development of a coherent, comprehensive and effective national strategy for improving social inclusion in higher education through close collaboration between the external reviewers and the national policy-makers and stakeholders involved in the country review. The country reports have been published and are available here (


Liz Thomas Associates was pleased to support the first ever NACADA UK Drive-In Eventon Academic Advising and Personal Tutoring on 25 March 2015 at the University of Sheffield. The conference shared work from researchers and practitioners based in institutions in the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands, and benefitted from a number expert inputs from NACADA – the global community for academic advising. Following the conference a business meeting established the UK Allied Group focusing on Academic and Personal Advising. Liz Thomas was elected as a member of the Steering Committee.

February 2015

Attracting diversity in Scotland
Liz Thomas Associates is pleased to be working with the Equality Challenge Unit and four university partners: University of Aberdeen, University of Dundee, University of Strathclyde and University of St Andrews to improve equality and diversity in student recruitment and admissions.

HEFCE studies to explore the impact of Student Opportunity Funding
Professor Liz Thomas is working with CFE Research on two contracts awarded to them by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to explore the impact of Student Opportunity Funding. The projects will develop a framework for quantifying and assessing the impact of the institutional activities to widen access, improve student success, support disabled students and enhance graduate outcomes. In addition to the development of an evaluation framework the study will look to improve understanding of the contribution of HEFCE’s Student Opportunity allocation to delivering these outcomes.

University All-Party Parliamentary Group: ‘Crafting the class’ to ensure a balanced student body?
On Tuesday 21 October 2014 Professor Liz Thomas addressed the University All-Party Parliamentary Group at the House of Commons. Her address was entitled ‘Crafting the class’ to ensure a balanced student body? This considered how the UK could learn from alternative approaches to ensure academic excellence and equity in admissions to higher education.

Launch of major research on transitions in Ireland
Professor Liz Thomas addressed an audience of policy makers, academics and practitioners at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin on 6 November 2015 about student transitions. This was the opening keynote address at the conference to launch ESRI’s important publication “Leaving School in Ireland: A Longitudinal Study of Post School Transitions” (2014, McCoy, S., Smyth, E., Watson, D. and Darmody, M. ESRI: Dubin).

Final conference for the E-quality: Linking quality and social inclusion in higher education project
Professor Liz Thomas addressed the final conference of the E-quality: Linking quality and social inclusion in higher education in Croatia project at the University of Rijeka on 21 February 2015. Participants from universities and universities of applied science, the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports, the Croatian quality assurance agency ASHE and from the project organisers IDE discussed progress towards social inclusion, and the proposed quality label for equity.

New independent learning project
Liz Thomas Associates is delighted to be working with the National Union of Students to explore students’ perceptions and experiences of independent learning in higher education. This is the second project undertaken by LTA on independent learning, funded by the Higher Education Academy. The emphasis of this project is to explore independent learning in different disciplines and institutional contexts, involving students in all aspects of the research process.

Liz to address European conference on social inclusion in higher education
Liz will be a keynote speaker at the conference The Social Dimension in European Higher Education, 25-27 February, University of Economics, Vienna. The address is entitled ‘Developing inclusive learning to improve the engagement, belonging, retention and success of students from diverse groups’, based on a forthcoming book chapter of the same title in Shah, M., Bennett, A. and Southgate, E. (Eds)Widening Higher Education Participation: A Global Perspective, to be published by Woodhead Publishing. Liz will also co-deliver to other papers based on current work:
Complexities and Challenges of Researching Student Completion and Non-completion of HE Programmes in Europe: a comparative analysis between England and Norway,(with Elisabeth Hovdhaugen, NIFU, Norway).
The development of a national ‘quality label’ to enhance equity and social inclusion in higher education: Insights from Croatia (with NinoslavScukanec, Institute for the Development of Education, Croatia)


March has been a busy month for Liz Thomas Associates. In particular we are very pleased to announce a number of new projects, and the launch of a new report.

The Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) have commissioned Liz Thomas Associates to undertake research about Effective practice in independent learning. Broadly, independent learning is undertaken outside contact hours, but contributes to course-specific learning outcomes. The aim is to identify practice that creates, supports and promotes independent learning, which can then be shared with others in the HE sector. Click here for further details.

Liz Thomas is pleased to be working with BMG Research and CFE Research on Understanding the changing gaps in HE participation in England on behalf of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). The aim of this study is to explore regional variations in participation in higher education. This will go beyond differences relating to prior attainment, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic disadvantage, and explore local learning ecologies. The qualitative research will be undertaken in a number of matched geographical areas.

Liz Thomas is working with CFE Research on Understanding successful progression to HE for the white working class and minority ethnic groups, on behalf of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS). The main objective of this study is to develop a fuller understanding of the reasons (beyond attainment) for the differential rates of participation in HE particularly amongst ethnic minority groups and white working class groups, and male students. It will focus on individual factors other than attainment, social and cultural factors, and contextual issues such as institutional constraints, the availability of viable alternatives to HE and the economic climate, that can impact on the likelihood that an individual will progress into and succeed in HE.

Liz Thomas and Robert Jones are co-authors of new report launched 31 March Through both eyes. The case for a gender lens in STEM, published by ScienceGrrl. The report reviews much of the public discourse and reporting on participation in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. It argues for the need for leadership and collaboration to bust both the STEM myth and the gender myth. To read the report click here.


This week Liz joined Twitter – follow Liz @ProfLizThomas. This has opened up a whole new word! Indeed, an interesting piece by Dave Beer (March 2013) asks whether academics can manage without Twitter. Beer observes that:

What I’m finding is that Twitter seems to have rapidly become the place to find out about what is going on in the academic world. It would seem that there is something about Twitter, more than any other social media, that seems to suit academics. The result seems to be that academic life is being remediate a on a large scale. Not only is information about opportunities (including job, publishing and speaking opportunities) passing around freely, but Twitter seems to be making aspects of academic practice more visible. We can see what is going on where, who has achieved what, where people are moving to, and so on.

Dave has now decided they can’t and he has joined Twitter - @davidgbeer.

This week I heard on the radio that there has been a significant increase in the number of students signing up as ‘sugar babies’ since the introduction of higher student fees in 2012. (A sugar baby receives financial support from a Sugar Daddy…). Could this be true I wondered? Twitter came to the rescue and I have been in touch with Angela at Seeking Arrangements. She sent me some very interesting information, including the top 10 UK universities for the number of students signing up as potential sugar babies. This is perhaps not the league table that most universities and colleges will be wanting to draw attention to, but this is important in the week in which we learnt that the Access to Learning Fund (ALF) has been scrapped, putting more pressure on poorer students.

I re-reviewed the evidence about the impact of finance on access to and success in higher education, and it is still inconclusive, especially under the new fee and repayment regime. This points to the need for a better understanding about the issues, and of the various student financial support schemes in place in other countries. The international study on widening participation goes some way towards this (Bowes et al 2013), but more needs to be done.

Bowes, L., Thomas, L., Peck, L. and Nathwani, T. (2013) International Research on the Effectiveness of Widening Participation. Bristol: HEFCE and OFFA


Join Ben McCann (University of Adelaide), Katy Vigurs (Staffordshire University) and Liz Thomas for a seminar on transition into higher education “It was all just too hard”… 24 February at Staffordshire University.

"It was all just too hard": Understanding the gaps between first year students’ expectations and experiences…and then bridging them

Between 2009 and 2013, the Staff and Student Experience and Expectations project (SSEE) surveyed over 18,000 students from all three universities in South Australia and matched student survey data with academic outcomes. The findings have indicated several areas where significant gaps occur in students’ expectations and experiences. Although students’ expectations are derived from a variety of sources which include friends, family members, school counsellors, and information circulated by universities, these expectations do not always reflect reality. In many cases the gaps between students’ expectations and their actual experiences have ramifications for student learning and satisfaction, as well as for retention and ultimately students’ overall well-being. These gaps are even wider for non-traditional students who are now entering universities in increasing numbers as a result of government policies to widen participation and uncap student places. The SSEE research shows that the students who have more realistic expectations of university life appear to have improved adaptation to the university environment.

The seminar will take place on Monday 24th Feb - 1.30-3.00pm, at Staffordshire University on the Stoke Campus. The seminar is free of charge, but places must be booked, and will be allocated on a first come, first served basis. To reserve a place please email, and you will receive information about the venue.

January 2014

Preparing your Strategy for Access and Student Success (SASS)

This week Liz helped Staffordshire University to start preparing their Strategy for Access and Student Success (SASS). The session covered:

• the national widening participation context;
• what is already known about the SASS requirements;
• a review of the most recent Access Agreement and the Interim Widening Participation Strategic Statement;
• action planning;
• evaluation planning;
• student engagement in the development of the SASS.

If you would like us to review your most recent Access Agreement and Interim Widening Participation Strategic Statement to prepare your SASS contact us. We are offering an initial review without charge or obligation.

Overview of the Strategy for Access and Student Success (SASS)

The SASS is intended to bring together HEFCE and OFFA requirements, combining two documents: Widening Participation Strategic Assessments / Statements (WPSAs/WPSS) and Access Agreements. These will be replaced by a single, five year strategy.
HEFCE and OFFA expect each SASS to demonstrate:

• an evidence-based approach to widening access and student success;
• alignment of strategies across the institution;
• contribution to national as well as local priorities; and
• full consideration of the whole student lifecycle.

Taking an evidence-based approach includes:

• Using institutional data to decide what the priority areas are for your institution: outreach, retention, completion, attainment, progression.
• Using institutional data to decide who the target groups are in relation to each of these areas.
• Reviewing institutional and national research and evaluation evidence to see what has worked well and less well in the past, including approaches that have made a positive contribution to targets.
• Developing numerical targets relating to outcomes as well as outputs.

Aligning the SASS with strategies across the institution could include linking to the following policies:

• Outreach, recruitment, admissions.
• Student experience, learning and teaching, employability.
• Equality and diversity.
• Human resources and staff development.

Contributing to national and local priorities is likely to involve working in partnership with other higher education providers and stakeholders to ensure:

• Wider geographical coverage, including rural areas.
• Work in primary schools continues (or is re-established).
• Contribution to national targets.
It is worth considering whether your partnership working is organised as ‘collaboration’ (doing things together) or ‘co-ordination’ (dividing up the task – or territory – between the partners).

The student lifecycle encompasses:

• outreach and pre-entry activities;
• recruitment and admissions;
• induction, transition and first year experience;
• learning, student engagement, student support and retention;
• completion and attainment; and
• progression into postgraduate study or the labour market.

Note about relevant experience

Liz led the analysis of the 129 Widening Participation Strategic Assessments (WPSAs) submitted by English higher education institutions in 2009. She contributed to two similar reviews in Wales in 2009 and 2011/12 for the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW). See more about Liz.

Male student participation and success in higher education

Male students are seriously under-represented in higher education. They also have lower rates of retention and are more likely to be unemployed than women. Take our quiz (here) to see what you know about male student participation and success in higher education.

Get the answers to the quiz here.
Are you aiming to improve the access and success of male students as part of your Strategy for Access and Student Success?
We can help. We offer half-day research informed workshops on targeting males for outreach and improving the engagement and success of men in higher education. We can also help with the evaluation of interventions. Contact us for more details.


Liz has been appointed International Expert on a Croation project (funded by the European Union), E-quality: Linking quality and social inclusion in higher education in Croatia. The project will focus on the issue of combining student diversity (and equity) with quality assurance. Liz will thus be visiting Croatian institutions and partner organisations at various times in 2014.


Socio-economic differences in higher education progression persist and are underpinned by educational inequalities, states a report published today (18/10/2013) by the HEFCE-funded organisation Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA). They conclude that although HEIs are using data provided in applications (and from other sources) to promote and sustain fair admissions, the HE sector still faces 'considerable challenges' in the context of widening participation. SPA's findings build on the ground-breaking and refreshingly challenging work of Tony Hoare (University of Bristol) who, back in 2002, found that state school entrants gained higher degree classifications than those from independent schools. Of course, Professor Hoare's findings were somewhat more nuanced than this, but subsequent conservative broadsheet headlines still showed clear pangs of fear. Suffice to say his evidence provided an important impetus for furthering the broad goals of access – and SPA's report continues this work.


Liz travelled to the States to present a paper at America's Council for Opportunity in Education conference and attend esteemed colleague Doctor Arnold 'Mitch' Mitchem's retirement ceremony. Dr. Mitchem headed COE for three decades and used his considerable organisational and promotional skills to improve access to post-secondary education for many cohorts of students. He is succeeded by Maureen Hoyler.