In the build up to the final date of submissions for the Widening Participation Conference 2014 (30 April – 1 May 2014, Milton Keynes, UK), theme leaders from the conference’s steering group have been fleshing out their theme in more detail, outlining potential areas of interest and raising questions.

In this post, Dr John Butcher, Senior Lecturer Deputy Director, Access and Curriculum, at the OU’s Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships who is leading the theme on ‘impact of curriculum reform’, outlines some of the key issues.

Impact of curriculum reform

Across the globe, universities and institutions providing higher education face the challenge of widening participation to address social inequality in different ways. Some include Widening Participation as part of their core mission, and continually scrutinise and reform the curriculum with the aim of removing barriers to social equality and enabling greater access.  Others claim to recognise the benefits of a more diverse student body but appear to be reluctant to change curriculum or teaching for fear that standards might be comprised.

This thematic strand seeks to generate fresh thinking about the relationship between efforts to widen participation, and the impact of curriculum reform. Around the world, HE is moving from simply being an elite, highly selective system available to a small minority, towards a mass system in which rhetoric around employability and graduate skills is driving HE expansion. Claims are made that widening participation can raise individual aspirations and transform the lives of some of the most disadvantaged.  Incontestably, more young people now go to university but the student experience, in terms of curriculum organisation, curriculum design, pedagogy and assessment, can seem unreconstructed and exclusive.

It has long been suggested (Jones and Thomas, 2005) that universities cannot just expect students to conform to traditional notions of what it is to be a student. Rather, they have to transform themselves in order to meet the needs of students  from groups of the population that have historically been underrepresented. In this respect curriculum reform is likely to be crucial in enhancing retention and success.

What can universities do to break the impasse in which the retention and success of students from many WP groups remains stubbornly worse than traditional students? What role can curriculum reform play?


Poster and paper submissions are being welcomed which speak one or more of the conference themes:

  • Innovation in Design and Pedagogy
  • Impact of Curriculum Reform
  • Curriculum Openness
  • Flexibility and modes of Delivery
  • Measuring and Demonstrating Impact
  • Revisiting Theory

Full details about making your submission can be found on the the conference website. The final date for submissions is 1 November 2014.

Theme organisers would be delighted to receive proposals which draw on original research and sound evidence (whether from large scale institution-wide reform initiatives, or small scale ‘bottom-up’ interventions) to report on new models of organising and delivering curriculum that open up access, improve retention and lead to greater success for all students.

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