By Ruth Hamilton
Doing doctoral research into widening participation in social work education meant that this conference was a ‘must’ and even though it meant a gruelling six hour drive to the venue it was most definitely worth it. I arrived to hear the opening presentation by Louise Morley arguing that current discourses of higher education including quality assurance, excellence, knowledge economy, employability and globalisation did not generate new thinking but reduced universities to the delivery of outcomes that were generated by government. Moreover she suggested that higher education must address issues of widening participation including those of accountability regarding social inequalities, the collective/public benefits of knowledge and higher education and the contribution higher education makes to wealth distribution as well as wealth creation. The presentation certainly started off the conference with a bang and pushed my thinking further on, but then all of the presentations did that. I came away with so many new ideas and references too!
I was spoilt for choice about which Paper Sessions to attend and had to pre-book these prior to the conference but as my interests grew in new directions during the conference I managed to squeeze myself into other workshops. The first of the presentations was by Stephanie McKendry who gave an insight into practice at a Scottish University and the need to understand the individual’s experience. She outlined a programme for preparing students who believed they would struggle to cope with the transition to higher education prior to the start of their courses and the use of new technologies which, she argued, can often ‘disenfranchise’ those learners. Transition was the focus of another interesting presentation by Amanda Chapman who talked of negotiating identities for mature students and the ‘imposter syndrome’ described by students when they didn’t feel they belonged. Sharing ideas and practices with colleagues from institutions around the world whether in presentations, during the poster exhibition or over lunch and dinner was one of the most exciting parts of the conference.
There were a couple of very good sessions about Australian experiences including Trevor Gale’s, whose presentation highlighted how similar debates in a different context can extend our understanding in UK institutions. He talked about student aspiration and social inclusion which he said should be central to wider government objectives. He suggested that we need to understand what is desirable for people in terms of ‘being’, ‘having’ and ‘doing’ if universities are to appeal to widening participation populations otherwise they will reinforce rather than challenge social stratification. Dinner followed and good food, wine and conversation flowed. The next day David Watson got us all going again with a reflection on how historically universities have been concerned with individual, life-changing achievements. Marion Bowl and Jonathon Hughes’ presentation was the final Paper Session of the day and one I had been really looking forward to. Some of their work has been of particular importance to the development of my own research and I was naturally very pleased to have an opportunity to listen to them in person, made all the better by one of the audience, Colin McCaig (who they had cited in their presentation), joining in the debate. Having the chance to listen to the discussion unfold was a real treat and it was a stimulating session.
But the final plenary session was the one that I dwelt on during my long and equally arduous return journey home. The emerging debate focused on how we in our separate (or not so separate) enterprises could make the connection between policy, research and practice more dynamic. The conference audience was made up largely of researchers, policy makers and practitioners. Marion challenged the suggestion that these were necessarily separate groups and argued that some of us have several identities – I would count myself as both a researcher and a practitioner given that I have developed and delivered social work programmes that are for work-based learners, often non-traditional learners, and am also doing doctoral research into widening participation. The connection between policy, research and practice is not hard to see but making these relationships more effective is the challenge. From my perspective I am not convinced that my research when published, however valid and well argued I hope it will be, will get the ear of policy makers – it seems to me that policy makers are more politically driven than driven by knowledge alone. From my experiences of working in universities they are also hierarchical institutions motivated by the values of business and I am not sure how empowered I feel as a researcher or practitioner to overcome these barriers. So where to now? Well I came away from the conference invigorated intellectually and asking a lot more questions and that is ultimately what I went for. But I was still left wanting more – more on how we can combine the efforts of all those interested parties and armed with a commitment to social justice, make a real difference. Perhaps that could be the topic for the next conference – ‘how we can all make a difference’? But whatever the focus I’m already looking forward to the next one!