Engaging the ‘Hard to Reach’ : The Importance of Using a Wide Range of Methods

By Yasarah Qureshi, RCT Coordinator, Widening Participation Department

As universities are becoming increasingly committed to understanding and improving ‘sense of belonging’[i], a wide range of methods can be used to support HE institutions in building better relationships with hard to reach groups and a greater understanding of the barriers they may be experiencing.

Defining ‘hard to reach’ students in the HE sector

The term ‘hard to reach’ generally refers to underrepresented communities, particularly those that have been marginalised or stigmatised.[ii] Within research, ‘hard to reach’ is often defined as a sub-group within a larger population that are difficult to access through traditional research methods because of a “social or physical location, vulnerability, or otherwise hidden nature.”[iii]

Minority groups, immigrants and those from low-income backgrounds are often identified as key ‘hard to reach’ communities.[iv] In the HE context, The REACT Project used the list below (Table One)[v] to categorise students who may be identified as ‘hard to reach’, using both demographic (e.g. ethnic minority grouping and socio-economic status) and attitudinal labels (e.g. low motivation and emotionally detached).

This list isn’t perfect, some of the descriptors are difficult to define. There are many other groups not included in this list, and many students will identify with multiple labels listed or none at all, with some students deemed ‘harder to reach than others’. However, it demonstrates that within HE, the term ‘hard to reach’ overlaps significantly with disadvantaged students. It is with this understanding that I will be using the term throughout this blog.

Table One – Descriptors of ‘hard to reach from REACT project’

Black and Minority Ethnic
Low Socio-Economic Class
Young +
Low Motivation
Emotionally Detached
Cultural Minorities
Vulnerable or Marginalised Population
Distance Learners
Mature Students
Gays and Lesbians
Single Parents
Commuting Students
Technologically Advanced Students

Table one – Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), (2017). 

Students from ‘hard to reach’ groups are traditionally identified as those most at risk of experiencing a lower sense of belonging

According to Goodenow, a student’s sense of belonging refers to the extent to which they feel they are “liked, respected and valued”[vi] within educational spaces, and explores relationships with educators and peers. A growing body of research finds a strong relationship between a student’s sense of belonging and key educational outcomes such as academic performance and retention rates[vii] [viii]. As sense of belonging is identified as a determining factor for positive educational outcomes, HE providers are becoming increasingly committed to understanding and improving belongingness within university.[ix]

Notably, students from ‘hard to reach’ groups are traditionally identified as those most at risk of experiencing lower sense of belonging at university[x]. This link is also highlighted in Table One, by the inclusion of attitudinal labels (such as low motivation and emotional detachment) alongside demographic labels (such as low-socio economic class and Black and Minority Ethnic).

Students from hard to reach groups in HE also face additional barriers to success. For example learners from underrepresented backgrounds may be more likely to undertake part-time jobs, experience financial hardships, unstable living arrangements, or have immigration challenges, which may additionally make it harder for them to take part in research.

Consider appropriate methods of engagement and research

Surveys are a common research method within universities, as they have the potential to reach the largest proportion of the student body. However, quantitative surveys may not always be able to capture the full scope of student experiences and minority voices, therefore alternative methods of research, sampling and engagement should be considered:

  • Building Trust. This is achieved by opening up lines of communication, listening to student concerns and using the student voice to guide and inform research, policy and intervention. This takes an institutional effort over time and can be facilitated through research using small-scale research methodologies. As a more personable way for universities to hear from students and to communicate a genuine interest and opportunity to improve the student experience.
  • Targeted recruitment. This is a useful sampling technique that can improve research participation among ‘hard to reach’ students. This process begins by contacting students from a selected sample list and then asking initial respondents for chain-referrals to contact other students they know. Snowball sampling is a very common example of targeted recruitment which relies on informal networks to recruit other participants. However, it is important to note that this method relies on the assumption that ‘hard to reach’ groups are bound together by networks, which may not be the case. There may therefore still be a bias towards more visible students among those deemed ‘hard to reach’.
  • Encourage student discussion. The use of focus groups for in-depth discussion is an effective method to allow students the opportunity to provide detailed information about their views, in their own words as they don’t always fill out surveys. The group format allows students the chance to hear other students express their views which may help students feel more comfortable expressing themselves.

There is no single approach to data collection when understanding the needs and experiences of a whole student body, but we can continue towards making good progress in our understanding

When it comes to defining the group hard to reach, there is a particular issue with assuming a shared understanding of who ‘hard to reach’ students are. I recommend that the term should be used with more clarity with groups specified where possible.[xi]

Engagement with ‘hard to reach’ students remains a complex process across the HE sector and while there are no silver bullet solutions, universities can help resolve some of the challenges by showing a genuine willingness to understand student experiences and a commitment to making universities inclusive spaces for all students.

Additionally, no single approach to data collection alone is ever enough to understanding the needs and experiences of a whole student body, but we can continue towards making good progress in our understanding of these issues by looking at who engages with our communications and when, testing how that engagement can be improved and considering how minority views can be sought to feed into larger student body projects. For example, alongside the work the Widening Participation team does to understand student progression, the What Works Department is in the process of conducting a qualitative research project with working-class girls’ to understand experiences and aspirations of female students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. You can find out more about our pilot research here:

This blog is the first of a three-part series about research with ‘hard to reach’ students.


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[i] Todman, V (2018) Sense of Belonging and Social Capital -our hot topics for 2018/19. Available at: https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/behaviouralinsights/2018/05/30/sense-of-belonging-and-social-capital-our-hot-topics-for-2018-19/

[ii] Pranee Liamputtong (2007). Researching the Vulnerable. London: SAGE Publications, Ltd. Available at: http://www.doi.org/10.4135/9781849209861

[iii] Ellard-Gray, A. et al. (2015) ‘Finding the Hidden Participant: Solutions for Recruiting Hidden, Hard-to-Reach, and Vulnerable Populations’, International Journal of Qualitative Methods. doi: 10.1177/1609406915621420.

[iv] Good Governance Institute. [online] Available at: https://www.good-governance.org.uk/blog-post/engaging-with-the-hard-to-reach/

[v] Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), (2017). Systematic Literature Review of ‘Hard to Reach’ Students and Methods of Inclusive Engagement. [online] Available at: https://www.studentengagement.ac.uk/newsite/images/Systematic-Literature-Review.pdf

[vi] Goodenow, C. (1993) ‘Classroom Belonging among Early Adolescent Students: Relationships to Motivation and Achievement’, The Journal of Early Adolescence, 13(1), pp. 21–43. doi: 10.1177/0272431693013001002.

[vii] Universities UK, (2019) BLACK, ASIAN AND MINORITY ETHNIC STUDENT ATTAINMENT AT UK UNIVERSITIES: #CLOSINGTHEGAP. [online] Available at: <https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/bame-student-attainment-uk-universities-closing-the-gap.pdf

[viii] O’Keeffe, P., (2013). A Sense of Belonging: Improving Student Retention. College Student Journal, [online] 47(1), pp.605-613. Available at: https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/prin/csj/2013/00000047/00000004/art00005

[ix] Ahn, M. and Davis, H., (2020). Students’ sense of belonging and their socio-economic status in higher education: a quantitative approach. Teaching in Higher Education, pp.1-14. [online] Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13562517.2020.1778664?journalCode=cthe20

[x] Thomas, L (2012) Building student engagement and belonging in Higher Education at a time of change: final report from the What Works? Student Retention & Success programme. [Online] Available at: https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/assets.creode.advancehe-document-manager/documents/hea/private/what_works_final_report_1568036657.pdf

[xi] Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), (2017). Systematic Literature Review of ‘Hard to Reach’ Students and Methods of Inclusive Engagement. [online] Available at: https://www.studentengagement.ac.uk/newsite/images/Systematic-Literature-Review.pdf



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