Our ‘slippery’ discourse is tripping us up

January 4, 2018

The feature “Chasing the elusive catch” (7 December) claimed to address the question of how widening participation could best be achieved. And while it contained some interesting and useful statistical data and some equally interesting comments, at least seven-eighths of the piece was not about “widening participation” but rather about “widening access”. Does this matter, you might wonder; and if so, why?

Widening participation is not just about who gets into university (or into other higher education providers), nor indeed the type of institution at which people study. It is about much more than that. It is also about the experiences that students from various backgrounds and contexts (especially those who are not usually associated with going to university) will have once they are there.

What chances for undergraduate (or postgraduate) success do they have? Equally, what is likely to happen to them once they graduate – what I will call here, for brevity, the “social mobility premium”? Overall then, what chances do “widening participation” policies and practices have in delivering “access to success”? Is this not the fundamental question that we should be asking? Personally, I suggest that we abandon “widening participation” as the umbrella concept and adopt “access to success” instead, as soon as possible. Accurate use of key concepts to describe what we are talking or writing about in this field of policy and practice is so important. Slippage between “access”, “participation” and “social mobility” enables and reinforces a dominant discourse; a “slippery discourse” that has possibly helped some, but perhaps not all, institutions genuinely trying to “widen participation”. Nor, in my view, has this “slippery discourse” helped all those students, including older ones, who have the potential to succeed in and through higher education study but who don’t think, “Yes, that’s for me.”

Stuart Billingham
Emeritus professor of lifelong learning
York St John University

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