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When I get asked what I do for a living and I tell people I am a widening participation officer, I’m ready for the blank look in response. I get it; the title doesn’t exactly make clear what my job is. So I’m going to clear things up, and talk here about widening participation – what it is, what it’s not; where it came from, and where it is going.

Widening participation, or WP as it’s known, is an initiative that seeks to bring more fairness to the world of Higher Education. Its purpose is simply to widen the demographic of people who participate in going to university.

Its premise is that groups deemed to be under-represented across the sector should be supported through effective, meaningful outreach activities to attend and succeed at university, in order to make sure that university communities are representative of wider society. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, in essence it is but as with any societal shift, it can take a long time to really see the fruits of the labour.

It’s important to say here that widening participation is not about advancing one group over another, or giving groups advantages over others. Instead, it is the acknowledgement that the likelihood of attending university, completing qualifications and succeeding afterwards are impacted by identity and background. Therefore, the widening participation agenda seeks to level out the playing field by recognising that those who are currently under-represented may require some support in pursuing study at this level as an option for them.  

Where did it come from?

The term “Widening Participation” became highly used in UK Higher Education following the Dearing Report, which was commissioned by the outgoing Conservative Government in 1997. However, it gained prominence under New Labour after they were elected in the same year. The report itself championed the need for the Higher Education community to represent wider society more accurately, ensuring that opportunities to study at that level were more easily accessible; this would be a feature of the government’s education policy from 1997 onwards.

Since then, there have been many shifts in focus, and initiatives introduced, some of which have stuck around, while others have not. For example, many might remember the AimHigher strategy, which was a national initiative aimed to encourage students who had not traditionally been to university, to consider it as an option. It involved a range of activities across all age ranges in secondary education, including university visits, mentoring schemes and although it had regional hubs, its national prominence and rollout ensured parity of what was delivered across the country.

This initiative was scrapped in 2010 following the General Election that year, and instead devolved the task of widening participation to individual universities. At the time, Minister for Universities, David Willetts said, ‘Aimhigher has assisted universities and schools to learn a lot about what works in raising the aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, but we now need to use this knowledge to make much faster progress on social mobility.’

Although universities had been allowed to charge variable fees from 2004, these were capped at £3,000 annually at the time. With the cessation of Aimhigher, combined with the controversial tripling of university tuition fees implemented from 2012, there was concern in the sector that this would have a damaging effect on the widening participation agenda, and that students from under-represented groups would remain so moving forward. However, with this rise in tuition fees also came the governmental acknowledgement that this could discourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds in pursuing university, and so initiatives were introduced to off-set this. The first was overseen by the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), who were responsible for safeguarding and promoting fair access to university, in the form of Access Agreements. These were agreements drawn up by each university with individual targets and pledges which sought to encourage applications from groups who were under-represented across Higher Education, as well as those who were under-represented institutionally. These were the caveat to universities being able to charge higher fees of £9,000 per year, and so were an important part of the agenda from this point.

Where is it now?

Although the agenda of Widening Participation has been in operation for well over two decades now, there is still under-representation in universities, and many of the groups highlighted in the 1997 Dearing Report are still under-represented now. That is not to say that there has not been significant progress, as there has, and those working in the sector should be proud of what has been achieved. You can find the latest data here. However, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that there is still work to be done, and perhaps there always will be to ensure that people from all backgrounds can attend and succeed at university in order to enrichen the Higher Education community with diverse voices and experiences.

Widening Participation is still a responsibility that is devolved to individual universities. While this may be seen as a drawback to some, as it does not attract centralised government support or direction, it can also be seen as a positive. For example, it gives universities the freedom to create their own strategies and initiatives based on their own priorities and demographics. It also means that Widening Participation teams can be creative in how they enact these, and how they are delivered to the young people they are aimed at.

The agenda itself is driven by data. We use a range of data that is available to understand who we should work with, and how. This involves participation data called POLAR (Participation of Local Areas) which are statistics that show how many people go on to university in every local area, and then these are grouped into quintiles, with 1 being the lowest participation rate, and 5 the highest. You could check your own postcode here. Alongside this, we also use IMD (Indices of Multiple Deprivation) data, which highlights, based on local areas, levels of health, education and socio-economics. This is also combined with schools’ data where we focus on lower than average school attainment, and higher than average levels of students who have special educational needs, have experience of local authority of care, students from BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) backgrounds, or eligibility for free school meals (all groups who are under-represented at university).

Although driven and underpinned by data, it is important for us to remember that we are working with individuals, and although we use these labels and data sets to understand who we should work with in a broad sense, we aim never to lose sight of the people behind the numbers. This is why where we can, we will work in a long-term, sustained way in order to get to know students well, and support them with their aspirations from a personal level. If you think we could support your school or community group, you can get in touch here.

In that sense, Widening Participation is not a marketing exercise. Although it is underpinned by the need to broaden the Higher Education community, and is therefore linked to university recruitment, there is a collegiality within WP that is built upon impartial advice and guidance for students to choose the path that is right for them based on accurate information. This might be choosing to pursue a course offered at a competitor institution if we do not offer the right one, it might be that the student does not pursue university at all. However, these are not failures of university WP teams, rather the sign of a confident, competent institution providing high quality information and support for the students they work with.

Instead of Access Agreements, we now have Access and Participation Plans (APPs) which were introduced in 2019, and these are overseen by the newly formed Office for Students, which replaced the Office for Fair Access in that year. As their name suggests, they rightly put the students at the centre of the work that is conducted, and the decisions that are made. We must however remember that we have a responsibility to the students as practitioners; it is not simply up to them to find the information and support they need, (particularly for those who do not come from a tradition of attending university), we have to make this information accessible and the support meaningful.

These APPs offer comprehensive 5-year plans outlining where universities need to make improvements in this area, as well as how they are going to achieve this. Every university produces these, and you can find the University of Chester’s here.  These plans have embedded evaluation methods and measurable targets in order to provide transparency about the progress that is being made, and allow institutions to assess when things are working (or not working), and adapt accordingly.

It is this willingness to adapt which is important in WP. As with any long-standing process, there are old tropes which exist within this area, and are sometimes relied upon as they have become so ubiquitous, which can be unhelpful. A prominent example includes the prevalence of the term ‘raising aspirations’, for example. For me, this unhelpful term advances the ‘deficit model’ of WP, where we assume that the students from under-represented groups are in some way missing something. However, having tangible, measurable targets for the work we conduct allows us to relook at how we operate, and also encourages us to make changes if we are not seeing the desired results. This includes the terminology we use. Students don’t need to have their aspirations raised as if they are too low. I use the term ‘broadening aspirations’, as I believe it’s not about there being a hierarchy where one pathway or choice is better than another. Instead, as practitioners we aim to show students the wealth of opportunity that is available to them; some of which they will be familiar with, and others perhaps not, but all of which are valuable, and do not require ‘raising’.   

Access or Participation?

Much of the documentation and rhetoric surrounding widening participation is now shifting to interchange with ‘widening access’. Some might think this is irrelevant, but for me it is important to recognise the distinction between the two. Access is about opening the door, whereas participation is about welcoming someone over the threshold. Each needs the other, and therefore they must both co-exist. I am glad therefore that the new plans prioritise both access AND participation, as well as linking those to retention and success too. They highlight the whole cycle of being a student, and acknowledge that our remit does not and should not end (or begin) at participation, but instead students from under-represented backgrounds should be supported throughout their time at university to make the best of being there, in order for them to have the best outcome in terms of their own life after university.      

Where is it going?

It is a very exciting time to be working in WP. Not least because we are in the process of implementing the new APPs, which are much more comprehensive and target-driven than ever before. But also, because, following the upheaval created by the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been afforded the opportunity to re-evaluate how we work, as many sectors have. We have opened up a world of utilising online platforms to reach more students and diversify what we offer them and how we interact. You can access our resources for all ages here, and also utilise the resources we have contributed to the sector-wide portal uni4me. This has meant we have had to get our heads around the platforms available, even venturing into the world of Tik-Tok, to ensure that students have access to the accurate information they need to make choices about their future.

The experience of being on campus and developing cultural capital will always be an important part of our role. Allowing students to see what university is like, and experience it for themselves is priceless. However, as many universities are now doing at the moment and into the future, we have opened up a world of opportunity by being able to blend the physical with the virtual to give students the most comprehensive offer of support and experiences that has ever been available.  

Access and Participations plans have changed things too. Not only do they show commitment long-term as they are 5-year plans, they recognise that this work needs time in order to shape and support students’ ideas about their futures. We also do this institutionally by monitoring who we work with through the Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) which is a longitudinal study allowing us the capability of measuring the impact of our activities on the outcomes of the students we work with over time. These processes also highlight that widening participation has to go beyond WP teams. Diversifying our university communities is a priority for all within the community, and everyone has their part to play, whether that be in supporting students with academic skills, equipping them with the work experience networks, or adapting curricula to ensure all identities are represented.

We’ve come a long way since 1997, but now it’s time to be brave and acknowledge when things are working, adapt when they are not, and make ourselves accountable for ensuring the community is fair, by pushing for real, seismic change where universities are a place where all backgrounds can succeed.

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