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The Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships > The Access Observatory > Research Seminars and Events > Policy to practice: Institutional Responses to Widening Participation

Policy to practice: Institutional Responses to Widening Participation

7 September 2011, The Open University, Milton Keynes

Claire Graham (University of Leicester)

John Butcher and Rohini Corfield (University of Northampton) and John Rose-Adams (The Open University)

How much freedom does a Higher Education Institution (HEI) have in determining its commitment to widening participation? In what ways can social justice missions be articulated, pursued and achieved? And how much central control has been, and can be, exerted over institutional practice in widening participation?

Differential responses of universities to the challenges of widening participation in higher education have become a central feature of the critical research and commentary that has accompanied a decade of practice. Economic rationality or social justice mission; dumbing down and lowering standards; increasing or widening participation; fair admissions or fair access: such contestations are commonplace in the literature yet little considered at the local level.

This seminar presented research from two projects that looked a little closer at local responses to the widening participation agenda.  Both research projects sought to develop an understanding of how institutions formulate strategy and operationalise widening participation activity, how they navigate the changing WP and higher education environment and what factors drive decision making. 

Claire Graham used Bernstein’s notion of framing (2000) to consider how six case study HEIs were presenting their commitment to the widening participation agenda in 2007. Framing refers to the extent to which messages are controlled by the communicator and is used to draw some conclusions about the consistency of the widening participation message across a range of settings.  Drawing on interviews with widening participation managers as well as analysis of prospectus documents and open day discourses, the research provides some examples of ‘strong’ as well as ‘weak’ framing of widening participation work in six very different HEIs. 

John Butcher, Rohini Corfield and John Rose-Adams presented findings from a comparative study of two markedly different kinds of HEI: the Open University and the University of Northampton. The study was conducted during the first half of 2011 – a time of great change and uncertainty in the higher education sector, as the coalition government’s plans for higher education were yet to be announced and the sector grappled with the reality of a new financial environment that following the government’s response to the recommendations of the Browne review.

This seminar considered recruitment policy, ideological and practical commitment of individual members of staff, local practice and the differential conceptualisations and priorities afforded to widening participation. Attendees were engaged in a dialogue with the presenters, considering the relevance of the findings to their own institutions and the implications for the new shape of the higher education sector.

If you have any queries about this event or any other seminar in the series, please email


Policy to Practice, Claire Graham (PowerPoint)

Contextualised approaches to widening participation: A comparative case study of two UK universities, John Butcher, Rohini Corfield and John Rose-Adams (PowerPoint)

The seminar was recorded and is available as a webcast here.

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