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.