Most English universities are using widening participation research to defend their spending, not to improve their outreach activities, according to a study.
Academics at Bournemouth University and the University of Liverpool analysed all 517 access agreements approved by the Office for Fair Access over the past three years and found that 83 per cent of institutions referenced research, evaluation or analysis in their plans for 2016-17, up from 67 per cent in 2014-15.
However, in their 2015-16 agreements, more than half of institutions referred to research in an attempt to justify spending on financial support for students – research that is often “not as robust as it could be”, the authors say.
In contrast, only 11 institutions referred to research resulting in improvements to outreach activities or courses in order to improve student participation or experience, according to a paper published in Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning.
Lead author Alex Wardrop, Bournemouth’s postdoctoral research fellow in fair access to higher education, said that the defensive deployment of research could reflect the importance of the agreements to universities’ ability to charge higher-level fees.
But she argued that widening participation could be made much more effective if research were used to challenge the status quo, not to shore it up.
“Research is about learning, reflecting and changing how things are done; and for widening participation, it is about transforming what higher education looks like and asking why we have persistent inequalities in educational outcomes,” Dr Wardrop said. “Research activity can be a really good way of reflecting on inequality, learning what doesn’t work so well.”
While the study found significant growth in the use of research in access agreements, it also suggests that the sophistication of analysis and evaluation in widening participation could still improve.
Only 52 per cent of 2016-17 access agreements referred to what the authors described as robust and established research approaches, including mixed method or longitudinal studies, although this was up from 35 per cent in 2014-15.
Just 24 per cent of institutions stated in their 2016-17 agreements that they involved academics in their widening participation research, up from 14 per cent two years previously.
Dr Wardrop said that this could reflect the relative isolation of widening participation teams in some universities.
“The way widening participation sits in universities is often quite marginalised or ad hoc, particularly around evaluation,” Dr Wardrop said.