Five extremely diverse LEGO (toy) MiniFigures are standing in front of a white house with red framed windows.

Whose job is widening participation anyway?

Widening Participation is an important topic, and something cemented into Higher Education Policy through Access and Participation Agreements. Yesterday I had the great pleasure of attending the University of Hull’s inaugural Widening Participation conference. The main theme and question of the conference asked: ‘whose job is Widening Participation anyway?’.

Widening Participation is something I am passionate about. It is about ensuring someone’s circumstances do not impact their ability to enrol at a University and be successful. The end result should see more students enrolling from under-represented groups. This includes, for example, care leavers, low participation postcodes, disabled students, mature students, and some ethnicities. For social justice – it is an absolute no-brainer. While the crisis around student fees and the option for Universities to raise them from £6k to £9k has been disastrous for some, one good consequence was the requirement for institutions charging over the basic fee (£6k) to have an Access and Participation Plan.

All providers that are required to have an Access and Participation Plan need to ensure their plan addresses several key points. The plan needs to show how a Higher Education provider will raise participation from under-represented groups. The plan had to include their ambition for change, the plans for that change and what targets have been set. It also needs to be clear how that plan will be delivered and what investment it will take. While £9k fees will off-put some prospective students (even though the repayments are more affordable than the old scheme). One good outcome, however, was the absolute requirement to address access for any provided charging a higher rate.

Widening Participation: My journey to university

It is fair to say that Widening Participation is something that is personal to me. Technically, my own background would have been widening participation. While the postcode I lived in had high rates of participation, no one else in my family had ever gone to University – no one could ‘sell it to me’ or tell me what it is like. My mum was also severely disabled and out of work. While my dad did work as a manager, he had worked his way through the ranks to get there – though at this point he no longer lived in the family home. I was fortunate that my school raised those university aspirations, and my teachers helped me understand the importance of a degree and the experience of studying for it.

It’s also fair to say I’ve gone beyond that base expectation. My postgraduate certificates, my job in higher education and my doctorate — they are all things that people from my background did not do (certainly at the time I started out).

To return to the question – whose widening participation is it? For me, in my experience, it was MY widening participation. Obviously, the question is broader than personal experience – but I wanted to reflect on this for one reason. If I had anything less than an absolute commitment to widening participation, I would be pulling the drawbridge up to prevent people like me from having the same success. Here is where the situation can be insidious. Imagine if I were from a privileged background and did not fight to widen participation in Higher Education. Well… I’d be working to pull that drawbridge up to stop people not like me from being successful. On that reflection – it is appropriate to fully answer the question:

Whose Widening Participation is it?


That is because access and participation is fundamentally an issue of equality, diversity and inclusion.

Social justice requires progress in this area. The right to Higher Education should not be based on where someone is born, or what needs they have. It should be based on ensuring everyone can reach their potential. As such – everyone working in Higher Education has a duty to Widening Participation, no matter what their own background is.

And if we fail? Well. Not only are we not widening participation, but we are not being equal, inclusive and supportive of diversity.

Dear computer programmers. Please make accessibility easy.

Why does accessibility need to be so difficult?

I’m sat in my hotel room, using my last few minutes before the start of the ALDinHE Conference to reflect on accessibility. Part of the reason for this is the journey I went through to make a resource about accessibility accessible. It isn’t as easy as it should be…

I have a graphic design background, and I have been trained in the use of Photoshop and InDesign – both industry standard pieces of software for the creation of materials. However, when I first learned these tools, the concept of accessible design was not at the top of anyone’s mind – or the top of the feature list for any program. Time change thankfully!

Take Microsoft Office 365 for example. Nearly every update for the last three years has included significant new features – or tweaks that make accessibility even easier. In contrast, Adobe may have created the features – but they are kinda buried and not easy to use. Designers are not the most famed for their accessibility credentials. Furthermore, many of us may not have been trained in how to create accessible materials or the importance of doing so. This is especially the case if the designer has been qualified for some time. Generalisations – I know, but, also generally true.

I need to talk about Microsoft Office a bit more to illustrate my point.

For example. I insert an image into a Microsoft Word document or PowerPoint presentation. If I right click on that image, in the context menu, I can clearly see the option to add alt text. Awesome!

A screenshot of a Microsoft Word context menu. It shows the option to 'Edit Alt Text...'

When I select this option, I can see the ability to add the alt text. If I have Microsoft Intelligent Services enabled – it’ll even have a go at filling it in for me. I also have the option to make the image as decorative. Awesome!

A screenshot from Microsoft Word showing the side panel to edit Alt text. It shows a dialog to edit alt text or mark it as decorative. It advices 1-2 sentences and states "How would you describe this object and its context to someone who is blind"

When I head to the review ribbon, I’ll see the Accessibility Checker has a prominent place. It’s right alongside the Spelling & Grammar checker, Read Aloud and the Translate option. It normalises checking for accessibility. Again, this is awesome!!!

So now I get to my point. Microsoft has been pretty ‘awesome’ at making accessibility a prominent, normalised feature. Now let’s look at Adobe InDesign – a piece of ‘industry standard’ software that is used for thousands of posters, books and resources. Now I know this software is for ‘professional’, users, but why do they need to bury accessibility?

For example, to add alt text, you need to choose ‘Object Export Options…’

A context menu in Adobe InDesign. It says Object Export Options...

This is not clear. No one would think to click on ‘Object Export Options’ to get to alt text. You then get this less thank helpful dialogue:

The Alt text dialogue in InDesign.

This is nowhere near as clear as the options in Word. What’s worse, is adding the text is not enough. There are a series of options and tick boxes that need to be selected, and the document needs exporting in just the right way. If all this is done correctly, it is highly accessible. However – it is not easy. If we want to encourage designers to make stuff accessible, those options need to be accessible too!

I am not criticising Adobe for their features. InDesign is powerful, and has *everything* you need to make a document accessible. However – all of these features are buried. In the current social climate, this should be a lot easier and a lot more prominent.

If you need any more convincing, see this dialogue between me and another user on the Adobe Forums Community trying to figure out how to get it working!

In short, Microsoft one, Adobe nil on this one! Once again – not because of the options in the program, but because of how easy and prominent they are to use. It simply sends the wrong message!