Student funding in further education

Research into the financial behaviour of further education students in Scotland, exploring demand for and potential impact of student loans amongst this group.

3. Methodology


3.1 This chapter details the main stages involved in the design and delivery of the research covering:

  • Overview of approach
  • Focus groups
  • Online survey
  • Reflections on method.

Overview of approach

3.2 There were three main stages involved in the research as shown in Figure 3‑1: . The work started with an inception meeting with Scottish Government and a desk review of background policy and research, which were used to inform the research design. The main data collection phase involved an online survey and series of focus groups with college students across Scotland. The final phase involved bringing together the key findings from each of the strands of the research to report on the headline messages from these.

Figure 3‑1: Overview of approach

Figure 3‑1: Overview of approach

Focus groups

A total of 18 focus groups were held in 11 college regions across Scotland, engaging 169 students.

3.3 Scottish Government officials emailed all college principals in Scotland in early October 2018 to alert them to the research. The research team then followed up with each of them directly to ask if they would be willing to host a focus group. A total of 14 colleges agreed to this covering 11 college regions[29].

3.4 Colleges were asked to recruit participants from a broad range of backgrounds to participate in the research. The focus was on students studying at FE level and the aim was to include representation from disadvantaged groups and those with protected characteristics[30]. Annex D provides a full breakdown of the profile of workshop participants.

3.5 The focus groups were mainly held over lunchtimes during November 2018. They each lasted one hour and were designed to explore general awareness and attitudes towards different financial terms and products, current sources of financial support, demand and potential impact of student loans and wider issues and support needs. The focus group plan can be found in Annex A.

Design and distribution of the online survey

3.6 An online survey was set up to capture the views of the wider student body who would not have the opportunity to participate in the focus group sessions. The survey was launched on 18 October and closed on 28 November 2018, with over 2,300 respondents (1% of all college students in Scotland). The survey was in two parts:

  • The first section captured data on the demographic profile of respondents
  • The second section asked about financial behaviour, sources of income / financial support, experiences of debt and attitudes towards student loans.

3.7 The survey was developed by SQW and designed around the key research questions that the study was seeking to address. Scottish Government officials commented and approved the draft in advance of the survey being launched. An email was sent to the lead college contact which included the survey link and suggested text that they could use to promote the survey to their students via email or social media. Annex C provides a profile of survey respondents and a comparison to the whole FE student population.

Analysis and synthesis of results

3.8 Upon completion of the focus groups, SQW researchers held a moderation meeting to validate the emerging findings. Notes from each focus group were reviewed and key themes identified. Quotes or statements were only included where they illustrated a recurring theme i.e. where issues had been raised multiple times within individual workshops or across a number of workshops. Other quotes have been included where they have reflected key findings from the survey. Specific words were chosen to quantify the occurrence of these issues in the group discussions. These terms were (in descending order): almost all; most/the majority of; a lot; some; and several.

3.9 After closure of the survey, responses were cleaned and prepared for analysis. Responses were included in the final dataset if they had completed, or partially completed, both the initial demographic section, and main substantive survey. Responses with no answers to any of the questions from the second section were deleted.

3.10 Data were then split into sub-groups, each of which comprised more than 150 responses. Statistical testing for differences in responses between sub-groups was not carried out as the sampling method was not random and because often sub-groups were not mutually exclusive.

Reflections on the method

3.11 The research design was strengthened by taking a mixed methods approach to capture both scale and depth of perspective. The geographical scope was broad with the research team visiting 11 out of 13 college regions, in both rural and urban areas. Figure 3‑2 shows the geographical coverage achieved.

Figure 3‑2: Focus group participants and survey respondents

Figure 3‑2: Focus group participants and survey respondents

Source: Produced by SQW 2018. Licence 100030994
Contains OS data © Crown copyright [and database right] [2018]

3.12 Unfortunately, not all colleges who were contacted felt able to participate in the focus group research. Due to this, the research is weaker without input from students in Edinburgh, and Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire. Having said this, the postcodes from the student survey indicate that there is representation of students from the Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire region.

3.13 Most key themes (80%) in a research study emerge after conducting three focus group sessions. This then rises to 90% after three to six sessions[31]. We can therefore be confident that the research findings from the 18 focus groups that have been delivered are suitably robust and representative of further education students' views.

Areas for further exploration

3.14 It was not possible for the research to address all issues that arose from the focus groups. Additional areas that would benefit from further exploration include: seeking the views of students who have dropped out of college due to financial issues; the impact of universal credit on student support; the impact of the costs of catering and other services within colleges; and the impact of travel costs for students in rural areas.



Back to top