Rethink the route to goal

Widening participation needs reconceptualising for a new age, say John Butcher, Rohini Corfield and John Rose-Adams

September 8, 2011

After recent fierce discussion on the future of higher education in the UK, one could be forgiven for mustering little enthusiasm for another debate about the future of widening participation. Yet the past year has seen the conceptualisation of widening participation shaken dramatically - including the termination of Aimhigher - leading many to conclude that the coalition government understands the concept solely as getting bright poor kids into elite institutions.

The shift from public to private university funding through the tripling of tuition fees, alongside an 80 per cent cut in the teaching grant, has recast the relationship between the government, universities and students. This is likely to have a detrimental effect on students from under-represented backgrounds.

Recent research conducted at the University of Northampton and The Open University sought to interrogate changing notions of widening participation just as both institutions were reviewing their strategies in this area. We drew on interviews with senior staff to explore tensions around the term "widening participation" at a time of change - from a "golden age" of generous resources to an "austere" age in which the infrastructure for the subject is being dismantled.

Senior staff at Northampton agreed that the term had become a tired cliche suffering from lack of clarity. "I think WP has too much baggage associated with it now as a phrase," said one. Another said: "If I am honest, the WP branding is a problem. We need to be aspirational, and WP doesn't help with that." A third talked of "an unfortunate sort of tarnishing of WP, in that it is seen by some in the sector as 'universities (that) aren't very good'".

At The Open University, the strategy had evolved with national policy, shifting from a focus on students with low entry qualifications to one positioned to address social disadvantage more broadly. One interviewee commented: "In 2004, widening participation at The Open University meant something completely different. If you ask the question, 'how were we interpreting WP in our practice?', it certainly wasn't to do with social disadvantage."

There is evidence that the university is now moving away from the phrase "widening participation": its new strategy is labelled "access and success". Its Centre for Widening Participation has become the Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum. This shift is mirrored across the sector. Such changes in terminology signify the fluidity of discourses that surround widening participation; it shares a porous border with concepts such as inclusion, equity and diversity.

The critical importance of central funding streams was undisputed by senior leaders at both institutions, but although they remain committed to the role of universities in the social-mobility agenda, all agree that new conceptualisations of the ideas grouped under "widening participation" (access, participation, retention, achievement) are urgently needed. It is encouraging that interviewees showed enduring personal and professional commitment to the values and philosophy of widening participation. However, they agreed that to ensure its sustainability in a marketised sector, it had to move with the times. One interviewee said: "We need to be able to offer courses that are sufficiently attractive to the mainstream student who'll pay a fee, and that fee can then be ploughed back through bursaries or fee waivers to allow the students who might be put off by that fee to come forward. How WP fits in with that is yet to be fully resolved."

The key message for practitioners is to adapt and evolve - or risk extinction. In undertaking this research, we unearthed an unexpected but critical finding - that, despite senior staff's active, personal, values-driven commitment to its principles, all detected in widening participation an outdated, discredited discourse associated with low levels of achievement, limited aspirations and a deficit model of the learner. These contrasting narratives cannot be easily reconciled. A superficial rebranding will not be enough - widening participation needs a major reconfiguration.

John Butcher is senior academic development adviser, University of Northampton; Rohini Corfield is widening- participation coordinator, University of Northampton; and John Rose-Adams is centre manager for research and information at the Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum, The Open University.

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