The latest issue of Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning is published and we are pleased to be able to re-print the Editorial from that issue here. Drawing on the keynote contributions delivered at our conference ‘Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education’, Liz Marr and John Rose-Adams offer a view on the effect of the current range of discourses around inclusion and widening participation.

Torpor and tension: Discourses of inclusion in 2012

As colleagues from around the world gathered in the UK in April 2012 for The Open University’s biennial Widening Participation conference ‘Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education’, the UK higher education system was contemplating the implications of major policy changes, which saw the further raising of maximum tuition fee levels and proposals for further changes in the form of a government White Paper. Contributions to the conference addressed two main themes:

  • Inclusive policy and practice
  • Student experiences and circumstances

Inclusive policy and practice

Governments support higher education in order to produce a skilled workforce and increase economic competitiveness. Can we provide learning for its own sake and still meet policy agendas? In what ways are meanings and understandings associated with ‘higher education’ and ‘inclusion’ shifting and changing? To what extent are the forces causing change sensitive to local contexts and circumstances? Additionally, concerns about standards have led to some resistance within the sector to the introduction of greater flexibility in delivery modes, new curriculum content, innovative assessment of courses, increased levels of student support and use of new technologies. Is this resistance warranted? What do we mean by standards in higher education and who decides what they are and whether they are achieved?

Student experiences and circumstances

The massification of higher education, changing economic circumstances and an aging population have created a diverse student population that falls within, between and outside different notions of inclusion. While we think of students varying in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, disability, religion and sexual orientation, there is also diversity in terms of personal circumstances, geography, career stage, perceptions of higher education and its purpose, and the student’s prior experience. How do experiences within and beyond the academy shape students’ engagement with higher education? How do notions of success, attainment, personal development and employability feature in the lives of students? How is lifelong learning and the life course integrated into inclusive practice?

In addition to these themes, the conference organisers made a commitment to support and feature non-UK research. In the months preceding the conference, much debate was being had about the ill-fated UK coalition government’s higher education White Paper, which signalled the intention for significant changes to the future landscape of higher education. In addition, a trebling of tuition fees for English higher education institutions has meant fresh and urgent enquiry into the implications for social justice and inclusion in higher education. As institutions and organisations agree courses of action to adapt and respond to these changes, there is much to be learned from the experiences of overseas institutions and colleagues. Across the globe there is a common need to consider carefully the range of meanings and the implications of inclusion in higher education, but due to variable national policy commitments the knowledge created through research and scholarship ranges in scope, focus and quality. Potentially, much can be learned from a global perspective, but understanding of local contexts, how knowledge has been applied locally, where its limitations have been found, and how it has been and may be adapted are all critical to effective and appropriate transferability.

Research papers from Australia, Africa, North America and continental Europe were presented across the two days, as well as contributions from a wide range of UK-based researchers.

Key contributions

The conference welcomed three distinguished speakers – Professor Sir David Watson, Green Templeton College, Oxford, UK; Professor Louise Morley, University of Sussex, UK; and Professor Trevor Gale, Deakin University, Australia. Each speaker approached the theme of inclusion in higher education from a unique perspective.

Transcripts and video recordings from all three lectures can be accessed from the Open University website at

A question of conscience

David Watson offered an historical and philosophical perspective, examining ‘Higher Education and the Question of Conscience’. He identified a number of claims made across its full history as to the purpose of higher education, which might be loosely grouped as student-centred (the space to learn and grow, to engage with a subject or discipline), meeting economic needs (developing technical knowledge and competence, developing professional networks) and meeting social needs (citizenship, religious affirmation). These claims, he suggests ‘represent a moving combination of current themes nearly all present at the creation of the modern university but liable individually to wax and wane according to mainly, but not exclusively, external influences’. Watson likened the story of higher education to geological strata, ‘laid down at different times and in different ways and for different purposes but once there … irremovable’. And for him, how these claims compete and play out at any given time have key implications for the core question – ‘Does initial or undergraduate higher education invariably change the lives of those who participate in it?’ – and related questions:

If so how? In economic or moral terms or some other way and if so why? Who or what is responsible for bringing this about? Are these effects serendipitous or predictable, do we just wait for them to happen, are they designed or accidental? Are they desired or … feared? Is higher education a necessary or even a sufficient condition for such transformations …?

In addressing these questions and returning to his theme of conscience, Watson presented his ‘ten commandments’ for universities, and from these drew lessons for the conference themes. In brief he exhorted listeners to avoid the temptation of condescension, of pulling up the ladder behind ourselves, and instead to design the big experience for everyone who follows on. He advocated using institutional self-knowledge more carefully – for universities to consider what they might change, what they should retain and what might be restored. He warned us against over-emphasising poverty of aspiration, arguing that lack of opportunity was a much more pressing issue for many people, and encouraged us to try to understand better the world in which we live. In sum, he said, we should trust the student more to know what might be the right thing for them.

The inclusive university of the future

In her ‘imaginings’ Louise Morley described a higher education system caught between two distinct characteristics – archaic elitism and hyper-modernisation – which she argues are not easily or obviously reconcilable.

Morley sees elitism in higher education as supporting various exclusions and inequalities. This elitism stretches far back into the roots of higher education and has remained, notwithstanding the massification, or the advent of universal, higher education (Trow, 1974; 2000). Hyper-modernisation of higher education can be seen in the new characteristics of universities as globalised and distributed entities, technologised and neo-liberalised, and newly open to marketisation and privatisation.

Focusing on the concept of ‘quality’, Morley points out that although the term is frequently invoked in discourses around inclusion, widening participation and social justice, it is generally invoked as the focus of a moral panic. Yet in discussions of quality, equality is rarely considered. Indeed, those institutions that appear at the top of the global league tables tend to have the worst records on equality.

Morley then poses the questions: What do we want higher education to be in the future? And which voice will have most volume in shaping that future – that aligned with neo-liberalism and the politics of austerity, or the Academy and social movements? She offers distinctions between Possible, Probable and Desirable futures, suggesting that the latter may not receive the full attention in academic and policy circles it deserves. Taking gender as an exemplar, she points to limited progress but also highlights the way in which a multiplicity of factors can have an impact on aspiration and participation. Above all, she stresses the male domination of higher education and the way in which any balance adjustments are greeted by accusations of feminisation, in a very negative sense.

Morley concludes with the suggestion that institutions and policy makers ascribe to a policy and economy of prestige, ‘where all universities want to be Top of the Pops’. Inherent in this endeavour is a failure to recognise the benefits of widening participation in higher education and subsequent structural barriers to change. The maintenance of a status quo is to the benefit of groups already enjoying power – this must change if a fairer distribution of wealth is to be achieved.

Desire and possibility in higher education

Morley’s perspective on higher education as a driving force for equality links closely with Trevor Gale’s approach to the concept of ‘aspiration’ to higher education. He develops an argument that contests the notion of a singular aspiration, instead suggesting that state, institutional and individual conceptions may differ in important respects. This observation is critical since these stakeholders individually and collectively control entry to higher education through the accessibility and availability of places.

Conceptions of ‘aspiration’ are seen by Gale as emanating not just from the prospective students; but also from the institution and the state. Institutional aspiration may take the form of an overt elitism, with increasing competition for places at the most ‘prestigious’ institutions leading to further homogenisation of the student body, and potentially creating a two-tier higher education system, cut along social class lines. State conceptions of aspiration often take one of two forms. Drawing on (predominantly Australian) research and the influence of Pierre Bourdieu, Gale suggests that policy understanding of aspiration is an example of a doxic logic:

Doxic aspirations … are in fact the out-workings of beliefs and assumptions of the dominant that circulate as natural and common-sense. These are the aspirations with which students often respond when asked ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ They are the responses that students know they should give to such inquiry, the responses deemed to carry the most value in our society.

Gale contrasts this with an equally limiting formulation – habituated logic:

by which we mean aspirations that are informed by and re-assert individuals’ socio-structural positions in society. For the marginalised, habituated aspirations take into account the assumed deficits that are ascribed to them by others and can even celebrate their social-structural positioning.

Gale’s thesis is that unless the tensions and differences between these different forms of aspirations are identified and reconciled in some way, ‘the policy ambitions of government will struggle to be realised or will only be realized in part’. Upon warning that state and institutional perspectives on aspiration need to be taken into account, Gale takes a sustained look at student aspiration.

For Gale, these are imagined futures, and as such are ‘not to everyone’s taste’; ‘not for the likes of us’ (Bourdieu, 1990:17). And furthermore, although the ‘possibility of the disadvantaged aspiring to higher education is open to policy intervention[,] not so the variation on what is desirable or tasteful’.


What might be distilled from these contributions? We would offer one diagnosis: that higher education is at risk of schizophrenia. It appears unable to reconcile the elitism of its past with the diversity and hyper-modernisation of its present. It cannot conceive where the power to shape its future lies: in the currently quietened Academy and a stalled student activism; or in the brash determinism and neo-liberal attitudes of governments and their policy networks ? The Academy struggles at any one point to decide whether the purpose of higher education is wedded to a narrow instrumentalism that emphasises employability, personal economic returns and technical competence, or a more expansive view that promotes claims of protected time, citizenship and the love of a subject. And students struggle with negotiating their own desires and the extent to which those desires are presumed and set by dominant social norms and forces that decide on behalf of the individual what they must aspire to and how they must realise that aspiration.

Thus, as Gale implies, higher education may not be to everyone’s taste. And even should it be, the accumulated effects of elitism – as argued by Morley – further exclude. David Watson’s exhortation to trust the student may seem counter-intuitive, but inclusion, we would argue, depends on it.


Ball, S. J. and Exley, S. (2010) ‘Making policy with “good ideas”: policy networks and the “intellectuals” of New Labour’, Journal of Education Policy, 25, 2: 151–69, at (accessed: 31 October 2012).

Trow, M. (1974) ‘Problems in the Transition from Elite to Mass Higher Education’, in Policies for higher education: Conference on future structures of post-secondary education, Paris, 26th–29th June, 1973: General report, Paris: OECD, pp. 55–101.

Trow, M. (2000) ‘From mass higher education to universal access: The American advantage’ (Research and Occasional Paper Series: CSHE.1.00), University of California, Berkley, at (accessed: 26 November 2012).

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