20 years on from the Dearing Review, it is timely to reflect upon the progress made in widening access to higher education (HE) in the UK, and compare that to progress made in other countries. In England, the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) extol the positive steps made by many universities to increase the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds registering for undergraduate degrees. However, controversies in this area can surface very quickly (see recent Sutton Trust report into the under-representation of BME students at Oxbridge, and the subsequent media furore, with many contributors seemingly surprised that students from the south-east, particularly those privately educated, were disproportionately represented). This of course surprised no one working in widening participation (WP)…however, it did demonstrate that, despite the illusion of progress, stubborn obstacles remain around equity and HE. In particular, it forces us to question the extent to which widening participation does automatically lead, in the UK government’s much repeated mantra du jour, to social mobility.

The Widening Access and Success team at the Open University are delighted to invite you to share your insights into the serious question: is widening participation enough?

In our fifth biennial WP conference, to be held in Milton Keynes in April 2018, we will be exploring institutional and policy perspectives to help us better understand what works to widen participation, but equally importantly, what barriers we all face in enabling our students (whatever their backgrounds) to thrive in HE, to succeed, and to increase their chances (if they want – we will happily debate this) in becoming socially mobile in an increasingly volatile and divergent world.

In particular we welcome papers addressing the theme of WP and skills gaps. For example, at the OU we are very interested in understanding the experience of students with low previous educational qualifications, or those students (well-represented in the literature) who enter an academic undergraduate programme with ‘so-called’ alternative/vocational qualifications. Do you have credible insights into the behaviour of students without the standard two A levels, and evidence of what institutions are doing themselves to adjust their offer to better meet such ‘non-traditional’ learner needs?

We are also very mindful of the achievement gap between students from a BME background and others in HE. Much work is going on in the sector (we would love to hear about your successes and challenges in this space) but we would be especially keen to share learning from papers addressing the English as an additional language (EAL) issue, which we feel is an under-researched aspect of WP.

We are also keen to receive submissions which address more conceptual issues in relation to WP. Are you working on the mismatch between the institutional expectations of conventional academic language, and a more inclusive approach which acknowledges the shaky intellectual and studentship foundations more diverse learners may bring from their previous educational experiences? It would be good to get a conversation going around how best to support students from WP backgrounds to succeed, in spite of the barriers HE can present even when participation has been widened.

Visit the conference webpage for details on how to submit a paper and register.

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