At the Open University, recent restructuring processes have meant that its Centre for Widening Participation has been subsumed absorbed within a new larger unit: the Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum.
In so doing it has prompted me to think about the relationship between the widening participation agenda and inclusivity in higher education, and how these two concepts relate to one another. Are they the same thing, or are they mutually exclusive? Or is one a sub-section of the other, dealing with a discrete aspect of a larger issue?
The new Centre’s objectives now lie in the ostensibly wider remit of inclusion, with an especial interest in inclusivity. Widening participation remains within it role, but alongside new interests, for example the Open Programme – the OU’s Do-It-Yourself degree, which allows the student unparalleled flexibility to construct a qualification based on their interests; and in curriculum support in areas of employability, the internationlisation agenda, and development driven by policy imperatives.
Widening participation is the practice (and religion) of making higher education accessible to those traditionally under-represented in it. It has now a long history of mainstream HEI activity, is recognized at most levels of institutions; has received a significant central resource through funding council grants and initiatives; and its proponents have produced a large research output. However, although the sum of this effort has been to increase the participation of some under-represented groups, for example those young students from disadvantaged backgrounds, proportionally, the gaps in participation between the most and least advantaged in society remain stubbornly the same.
At the risk of oversimplifying, widening participation activity roughly speaking has seen the pursuit of various ‘hard-to-reach’ students through resource intensive outreach and recruitment projects and exercises. Research has supported this by assisting HEIs in their understanding of the reasons for these groups’ historic under-representation.
Successful widening participation is then often seen by HEIs (and rewarded in England by HEFCE) by getting ‘target’ students through the door. Currently HEFCE rewards students from low socio-economic backgrounds whom have no previous higher education experience. These students, once through the door, are enrolled onto the same courses as everyone else, and are, more or less, left to fend for themselves.
For an institution successfully recruiting these target students, it is perhaps inevitably a difficult question to ask what the outcomes are for these students. How would an institution respond, for example, to a chart describing course pass rates for all its students grouped by socio-economic background (using postcodes for students linked to the Indices of Multiple Deprivation), which looked like this:
There are, perhaps, two extremes of response to such a question. Firstly, an institution might take a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest standpoint, beleiving that those students from disadvantaged backgrounds who were, through the philanthropy of the institution (and generosity of the funding council), given their chance and failed to capitalize on it. On the other hand, an institution might begin to ask itself why students given equal access to learning, have such marked differential outcomes. How inclusive can an institution profess to be where there is such a clear relationship between social background and failure? What use is widening participation to sections of society participating only in failure?
Facing questions like this is perhaps one of the ways we can look at how widening participation and inclusive higher education relate to each other. An institution committed to widening participation might provide access to an unprecedented number of learners previously under-represented in higher education. But through its (ideologically laudable) commitment to just this, it may risk leaving the student at the regsitration desk. Equality of opportunity is not the same as equality of outcome. In contrast, an institution committed to inclusivity, might first look elsewhere than recruitment targets, to its bread and butter: curriculum, its delivery, and support to students.
An inclusive education offer involves understanding the needs of those students who given equal opportunity have not experienced equal outcomes, and assessing what can be changed in order to make those outcomes more equal.