Facing the challenge of widening participation

February 25, 2000

The Action on Access team discuss the obstacles to making higher education 'a force for social justice'

David Blunkett's Greenwich speech, setting out the government's view of the future direction of higher education, throws up a raft of challenges to anyone concerned with widening participation, not least because the boundaries of what higher education is and what it is for are both expanding and contested.

The lengthy passage in Mr Blunkett's speech on universities and social inclusion is worth reading carefully. In it, he considers how higher education can act as a force for social justice and equity and sets out the government's position that, as well as new financial arrangements, a cultural change is needed within the sector as a whole, to make it more inclusive and accessible.

The difficulty here though, is that there is often a tension between the actions that may be in the general public interest and those that are rational for individual universities to take to protect or promote themselves in an increasingly fast-moving, competitive and globalised market system.

Despite a widespread warm, consensual, rhetoric about the need to widen participation, there are examples of "Nimby-ism" - wider participation is all very well as long as it does not mean this institution or that course. In this respect, Mr Blunkett's apparent acceptance that stratification is the cost of diversity is a little disappointing. It would be a pity if those in a strong market position were not encouraged to broaden the composition of their student intake or to develop a more inclusive organisational behaviour.

Many of the debates about student finance, while central, are only addressing part of the issue. The higher education model itself is one that needs to be addressed in order that the government agenda of creating inclusivity through widening participation can be met. For example, a challenge to the influence that the model of a three-year, full-time first degree has over so much of the sector's activity is overdue.

In the same way that the current Learning and Skills Bill is taking the first shaky steps towards a further education sector designed for lifelong and recurrent learning, it is perhaps time to look again at Dearing's view of higher education. This would provide a model inclusive of a larger, more diverse student base, and one that better acknowledges the transformative impact that both ICT and workplace-led learning will have over the sector. The dominant role that higher education has enjoyed in knowledge creation and transmission will be challenged increasingly, regardless of whether or not participation is widened.

Just what sort of change is desirable in the interests of social justice may need revisiting and re-prioritising. The vocabularies of access and widening participation can be quite slippery, often implying that if only "non-traditional" students were better prepared, they could better "access" what is on offer. The attitudinal and behavioural changes that universities need to make themselves can be ignored. To avoid this, there may well be a need for widening participation strategies to place much greater emphasis on retention strategies.

The prime minister wants to see 50 per cent of young people being able to enter higher education by the time they are 30 years of age. There are other targets that would also reflect the move towards greater inclusivity, particularly, for example, in an ageing society, the numbers and proportions of students over 45 taking up undergraduate places in all subject areas. But it is the under-representation of students of all ages from social classes IV and V that remains the greatest single challenge. Moreover, where low income combines with factors including gender, age, ethnicity or disability, participation is affected by multiple disadvantage.

In response to some of these challenges, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has established a co-ordination team to help underpin its widening participation strategy. Drawn from practitioners in the field, the team is known as Action on Access.

Hefce has designated significant parts of its funding and policy model to support the move towards widening participation. Its strategy is multi-faceted and challenging to the sector. Consequently it has appointed the team for three years to work with projects and institutions to help the transformation towards inclusivity, through working with regional projects, disseminating good practice and promoting change. The challenge for the team and for the Greenwich view of higher education is to ensure that the new vision learns from the lessons of today and that practice is turned into policy and vice versa.

The Action on Access team is led by Geoff Layer, professor of lifelong learning at the University of Bradford, and includes Christine Davies (Nottingham Trent), John Storan (South Bank), Alistair Thompson (NIACE) and Maggie Woodrow (Westminster).

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