Why I believe we need to divorce widening participation from mass participation

May 24, 2002

Joe Baden, project manager, Agency for Non-traditional Students, Goldsmiths College,London. It is time that the debate surrounding widening participation moved on. Because of its immediate, and somewhat mythical, associations with increased student numbers and the dearth of funding to match that rise, widening participation has become inexorably associated with a fall in standards. Most of those committed to widening participation see positive discrimination as counter-productive.

Nevertheless, to some, it is axiomatic that an increase in non-traditional student numbers equates with "dumbing down", making it the scapegoat for all that is going wrong in higher education. There is almost an air of resignation pervading our institutions that is as insulting to these new students as it is pernicious. This is particularly true when we consider that, though numbers have risen dramatically overall, they have hardly moved among working-class students and those from certain ethnic groups.

One reason for the association is that the commercial pressures to increase numbers are invariably concentrated on those colleges that are already working hardest to encourage non-traditional learners. In fact, there is a case to answer that in colleges where outreach work has not become the norm (and that is most) the main beneficiaries of widening participation are those from well-represented groups who failed to make the grade at A level.

The real problems are economic. It is often those from marginalised backgrounds who have the greatest thirst for knowledge and, because of their more extensive understanding of life outside the mainstream, are best equipped to develop, for example, critical-thinking skills. Students on access courses are frequently more receptive to ideas than those who have been through the process of regurgitating facts. We need to separate the two debates and recognise that, in theory at least, we could widen participation without increasing numbers.

Another reason that the issues have become intertwined is because it appears that the government's emphasis as far as working-class students are concerned is on vocational courses - a case of upgrading the economic skills base, leaving the loftier pursuit of thinking to those more appropriately stationed. Widening participation is increasingly becoming the 21st century's equivalent of preparing peasants to work in cotton mills. Consequently, the benefits of inclusion on higher education courses are often being sold to non-traditional learners simply as a means to improve job prospects.

For many of us working in the field, there is an ethical dilemma: by focusing our attention on those academies already committed to opening access, it is possible that we are helping to develop new inequalities and perpetuate old ones. We are making it easier for the institutions that most need to be shaken from their complacency to do nothing. The widening-participation strategy could help create a state where a degree from some institutions will have as much kudos as a GCSE has now. Nothing will be achieved by simply offering new degrees in new settings. We already have a tripartite system. Adding further tiers to be sneered at by educational elitists will achieve nothing. We need to address the living anachronism of the streamed structure within higher education.

The government has to offer greater inducements to the more established universities to open their doors, or force them to do so. If widening participation is to mean anything other than the maintenance of a historically placed status quo, then this monopoly of prestige must be broken. If we are to build a more egalitarian system, the debate needs to be extended and we need to go back to some basic questions, such as what do we actually mean by widening participation and what is education for?

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