I attended the British Educational Research Association (BERA) Annual Conference in Belfast from 15-17 September 2015. These are relatively large scale events which cover all facets of education. This broad coverage means that higher education is just one theme within many. While it can be interesting to see what approaches are being used in other aspects of education I’m going to focus this blog on one of the HE-related sessions because I think it raises important issues that we need to consider in the scholarship based in CICP. So the focus for this blog is a presentation from Richard Waller and Neil Harrison from UWE, “What works and who knows: Contemporary practices and concepts of success in widening participation”.

This highlighted how around £1 billion was spent on AimHigher which led to a wide range of outreach initiatives. This was largely due to the perception that HE participation was stratified by class and disadvantage. In addition since 2006 about £100 million a year has been spent on other innovations and initiatives. Harrison and Waller asked the basic question of what spending around £2 billion had achieved.

They found that there has been some improvement in participation rates of lower status groups but argued that there has been little change in the social mix of students (particularly at elite institutions). They suggested that 95% of participation is determined by difference in level 2 attainment, so that 80-85% of students with 2 A-levels go to university irrespective of their social background.

Waller and Harrison suggested that AimHigher had initiated a focus on a deficit in working class aspiration. Furthermore, they suggested that there was a perception of a causal relationship between aspiration and attainment. They found that the evidence gives a mixed and highly contextualised picture and that the evidence for such a link is much weaker that widening participation practitioners assume.

They argued that these assumptions have shaped widening participation practice. They have led to a focus on stressing the importance of ‘improving’ potential student’s understanding of HE, to a focus on creating aspirations and to attempts to dispel negative stereotypes of HE. In contrast, few of these HEI initiatives evinced any belief that attainment between Key Stages 2 and 4 could be influenced or that such changes were the responsibility of practitioners. Instead, the focus has been on attainment raising through master classes, tutoring and mentoring

The potential pitfalls of such an approach were amplified by the lack of monitoring and evaluation widening participation initiatives. This has been made even more problematic by what Waller and Harrison referred to as the ‘UCAS problem’. We do not actually know who of those involved in widening participation activities actually go on to university. As the presenters pointed out it is very difficult to evaluate the impact of activity when the final outcomes cannot be gauged.

Waller and Harrison made four suggestions:

  1. It is vital to identify the young people who are missed by widening participation activity.
  2. HEIs should be encouraged to prioritise attainment raising.
  3. There needs to be more thought given to working out whose aspirations need raising and which aspirations need raising.
  4. Finally, they questioned whether, even with better data, a causal relationship between widening participation activity and increased HE participation could ever be demonstrated.

They concluded by suggesting that widening participation has been retreating up the age bracket from 16+ since the demise of AimHigher and that there was a real risk that it was marketing rather than social justice which was driving the widening participation agenda.

This presentation must give us all pause for thought. We need to constantly remind ourselves that the impact of university based initiatives may actually be quite limited in the sense that, by themselves, they will not counteract a range of other inequalities and exclusions. This is not to say that they are unimportant just that our understanding of their value needs to be placed in the context of a wider appreciation of the sort of society that they are operating in.

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