Transition to Higher Education (HE) within the United Kingdom (UK) environment can present students with personal challenges that are, for some, resolvable and yet for others, insurmountable. Well established social support provided by family and friends is disrupted by this transition, leaving some students struggling to adjust (Wilcox, Winn, & Fyvie-Gauld, 2005). Typically, students construct for themselves new social support networks that provide formal support - practical help with academic tasks, appreciation of opinions (Hobfoll, 1998) and informal emotional support and social companionship (Walker, Wasserman, & Wellman, 1994). Those who provide social support are vital in this transition, and beyond (Agneessens, Waege, & Lievens, 2006). Individuals' personal contact with others constitutes their social network, which is:
... composed of all others with whom a person has a certain relationship. An important part of this personal network consists of those others who provide social support. (Agneessens, Waege, & Lievens, p. 427)
Social support networks allow an individual to feel cared about and understood (McKinney, 2002). This, in turn, can have a positive impact upon students' self-identity, self-esteem and thus membership of the learning community (Antia, Stinson, & Gaustad, 2002). The positive contribution of social support networks goes beyond the personal; affecting academic performance. Korinek, Walther-Thomas, McLaughlin, and Williams (1999), as well as Peat, Dalziel, and Grant (2000) have begun to explore the links between social support networks and academic performance. Their work suggests that strong social support networks are central to retention and progression because of their potential to impact upon both formal and informal aspects of student academic experience. Students engaged in strong social support networks clearly benefit academically and socially from their experiences.
The New Labour government in the UK (1997--present) currently asserts that social justice will be achieved by reducing exclusion through education and subsequent employment (Armitage et al., 2003). Thus, UK policy instituted a system of evidence-based accountability for the formal academic needs of students. Much research and resource has been dedicated to the formal academic needs of university students, in pursuit of improvements in achievement (McLean, 2001), retention and progression (Christie, 2004; Raab & Adam, 2005). This has created a climate in which the focus is almost exclusively on formal academic need, yet consideration of purely formal academic need alone may be insufficient to ensure that students fully benefit from their education. For example, the deep rooted and intractable problems of the UK HE system may be indicative of a system in danger of becoming increasingly unresponsive to real student need.
A small but growing body of research (see for example, Putnam, 2000; Elias, 2006) indicates that students' personal and social issues feature significantly in student experience and their progression and retention. Osterman (2000) suggests that educational institutions may implement organisational practices that neglect and thus undermine student experience of a supportive community, representing a threat to their physical (Degenne & Forse, 1999; Granello, 1999) and psychological welfare (DiFilippo & Overholser, 2000).
Student formal academic support is clearly important. However, informal student support networks are at least equally important and to date, given little emphasis in HE research. The central aim of the principal study was thus to explore student experience of both formal and informal social support networks, to allow for beneficial outcomes that influence student overall wellbeing, retention and progression. The data collection method employed for the principal study was Internet based qualitative interviews using Instant Messenger. …