Widening the gap to Widening Participation

This blog post comes off the back of yesterday’s post regarding bad spending choices in a time where every penny counts to plug the gaps that the funding cuts from the government are leaving in the HE sector. Yesterday’s blog can be found here! It also comes from mine and many other staff and students frustration at the lack of money available to help people get into Higher Education, and stay there through to completion.

I created a briefing document some time back to outline the issues surrounding Widening Participation, An extracts of this document can be seen below.

“It is now clear that the subject of widening participation is high on the agenda, not only on the ground; in local Universities and Students’ Unions, but also on a national level, with the government, NUS and funding agencies such as Higher Education Funding Council England (HEFCE) putting strong emphasis on its importance. With fee caps now at £9000, those who decide to attend university are expecting better value for money and support throughout their studies, while others are no longer sure attending a HE institution is even financially viable to them. There is much that Students’ Unions in partnership with their universities and local schools and councils can do to ensure social mobility is still possible.”

For those that aren’t too clued up on the whole Widening Participation topic or what its all about, I will try to put it into a simplistic form. Widening Participation (WP) is about increasing the number of successful university students who are drawn from deprived, underrepresented or disadvantaged backgrounds. And WP covers a range of activities such as:

  • Raising knowledge about aspirations to participate in Higher Education
  • Influencing individual’s decisions to participate in Higher Education
  • Helping Individuals make an informed choice of course and institution best suited to their needs
  • Encouraging and facilitating entry to higher education (University outreach programs)
  • Supporting inclusion and successful continuation in higher education
  • Facilitating exit from higher education to employment.

Widening participation overlaps significantly with retention rates, postgraduate employment and value for money/maintaining high standards of education.

The coalition government even put together a policy stressing how important WP is, and extract of this is below.(This was after Clegg failed to uphold his promise. Nice one Clegg!)

“Anyone with the ability who wants to go to university should have the chance to do so, whatever their economic or social background. The government wants to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education – in particular into the country’s most selective universities.” (Department of Business Innovation & Skills (Dec 2012))

Because of the emphasis put on WP programs and the funding that has been made available to institutions for their work in the area, over the last four decades UK Higher Education has seen unprecedented growth, with around 2.5 million students in university compared to around 600,000 in the mid 1970’s. The ‘Office For Fair Access’ (OFFA) also noted that in the late 2000’s the gap between students from the most advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in HE was at its narrowest point. (Hooray for Social mobility!)

Unfortunately today’s economic climate is having a negative effect on this growth in the HE sector. Caps on student numbers, financial constraints on universities funding and the rise in tuition fees, have all played a major part in stemming this boom. Universities and Students’ Unions need to work together to ensure that each place at their institution is truly open to all applicants, regardless of social position or financial background.

The widening participation agenda promotes a more inclusive society, with fewer excluded groups. Some individuals are not reaching their full potential because they do not have access to Higher Education and Universities and Students’ Unions alike have a large part to play in ensuring these individuals have the same opportunities as anyone else through the development of access agreements, development of a fair admissions process and making available substantial financial support.

WP isn’t just about getting people into University, it’s about giving people an opportunity at a better life and in the long run this would be beneficial to the UK economy, the UK is heading towards a Knowledge based economy. For that to work we will need more people entering HE. This won’t be possible though if we keep on pricing people out and widening the gap between those who can afford to attend university, and those who can’t.

If like me, you are interested in this sort of thing then you might enjoy reading some of the following links as well.

HEFCE: National Strategy for access and student success: 07 March 2013

Realising Opportunities: Working together, Supporting Talent

Office For Fair Access (Offa): Promoting fair access to higher education

HEFCE: Widening Participation: Widening Access and Improving Participation.

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