A summary of the University of Reading’s widening participation strategy recently dropped into my email box.

I think it is interesting to compare the approach taken by Reading to the one that is planned by the new Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum (CIC) at the Open University.

I thought that both the similarities and the differences between what we (in CIC) hope to do are really interesting.

First the similarities. These are most clear in the first part of Reading University’s summary:

We believe that everyone who has the potential to benefit from higher education should have the chance to do so. Easier access to learning results in a more varied university community, which ultimately brings cultural, social and economic advantage to everyone.

We play a leading role in many local, regional and national initiatives that are designed to put higher education within reach of a wider audience. This challenge involves us in:

  • making more people aware of the study opportunities open to them
  • encouraging the academic aspirations of individuals from all social, educational and ethnic backgrounds
  • overcoming negative pre-conceptions and potential barriers to participation
  • providing more flexible pathways to progress studies and more innovative ways to study, such as distance and online learning.
  • ensuring transparent and fair admission to the University and consistent and reliable assessment of studies.

The first paragraph of the extract is, I think, very similar to the values that underpin our fledgling unit. We too think that as many people as possible should be able to benefit from participating in higher education.

I think we in CIC could also identify with many aspects of the challenge that are listed above. And it’s also true to say that we have been and will continue to be involved in local regional and national initiatives to ‘put higher education within reach of a wider audience.’

The University of Reading widening participation strategy continues:

To attract the broadest cross-section of talented and motivated students to the University, our dedicated Widening Participation Office co-ordinates an extensive outreach programme.
Activities include:

  • leadership of the Berkshire Aim Higher programme: this partnership of education providers promotes access to higher education;
  • summer schools that give young people – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – the opportunity to experience student life
  • mentoring schemes to help potential university students understand the value of higher education
  • organised visits, events and talks both at the University campus and at local schools and colleges
  • special projects promoting science education, such as National Science Week and The Annual Schools Science Lectures.

However, the biggest difference is shown by this second extract. Reading University puts the emphasis on a range of activities, such as summer school, special projects and campus visits which aim to make personal contact with potential students and might encourage them to apply to study at Reading. In contrast, CIC intends to focus on the role of the curriculum in widening participation. This builds on the success of both Openings programme and of the Open degree programme. The impact of curricula that are appropriately developed and supported will also form the focus of research an scholarship – an aspect not mentioned at all by Reading. These differences highlight the distinctiveness of the approach to widening participation the new Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum plans to adopt.

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2 Responses to Widening Participation and Strategy

  1. John says:

    It’s interesting to read the outline of activity of the University of Reading, which appears a common response to the challenges of a widening participation agenda. We have in higher education for more than ten years been compelled by conscience, and coerced by central policy and funding incentives, to redress the balance in the various inequities in access and participation that we continue to see in our higher education system.

    And I would suggest that the OU in its currently stated aims for widening participation has little to add to that offered by the University of Reading. One might argue that the OU’s strategy is a little more corporately-oriented, in that it seeks to target scarce resource at one section of under-representation in HE – specifically those individuals from ‘poor’ postcode areas across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – in order to not spread itself too thinly. And its Community Partnerships Programme focuses ‘outreach’ efforts on four regions of particularly high deprivation. It is however essentially about increasing the proportions of registrations from this group. The OU goes a little further in some respects in that it identifies in addition to targeted outreach and community partnership activity a responsibility for faculties and student support services. In fact, faculties were required for the first time in the OU’s most recent Widening Participation Strategy (2009-2013) to respond to the challenges of widening access and participation at their subject level, by writing an action plan and reporting on recruitment and attainment targets.

    Faculties, understandably, responded in a variety of ways to this challenge. Some felt that they were already performing above target, therefore already were effective in widening participation. Others responded with a request for further information and assistance in understanding what widening participation was and what the targets groups needed in order to be represented and successful. One faculty commissioned a study to better understand the experience of ‘widening participation students’ on their courses. What I think became apparent was that although the idea of involving faculties in the process – and therefore shared ownership of widening participation – was laudable, it failed to direct and support faculties towards utilizing the tools they have at their direct disposal – curriculum, pedagogy, delivery. What an institution the size of the Open University lacks is any real meaningful connection with recruitment of students. It’s impressively resourced marketing department, surely, is the area most directly responsible for such matters as finding students. The pursuit of recruitment targets for faculties therefore muddied the waters, and took attention away from the important stuff – the nuts and bolts of learning and teaching, of delivery and reception.

    What I think the new Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum has to offer, I would tentatively venture, is the possibility of the aims of a widening participation agenda, now newly challenged by extremely tough public funding realities, realised not through a resource intensive outreach and community engagement initiative or by the pursuit of registration from targeted groups, but rather through a grass roots reconsideration of what we are offering students in terms of curriculum, its delivery and the additional support we provide. These facets of a higher education are what tie the various parts of the Open University (and any Higher Education Institution for that matter) together, so are something that faculties, lecturers, research staff, and senior managers can pursue with vigour. The reality is that with student place caps across the sector, HEIs will be thinking less about what students they get in and more about what they do for them when they arrive. For the Open University this probably translates into its interest being the constant examination of the ways in which its offer is meaningfully inclusive. With an ostensible remit for curriculum oversight at the OU, the Centre can provide some of the coordination required to begin the pursuit of such activity. As with all institution-wide initiatives, high level support is required, and this is most usually secured through high level strategic statement and direction. Perhaps upon its revision, the OU’s Widening Participation Strategy could seek to incorporate explicitly the pursuit of such activity as curriculum innovation, inclusive practice, and pursue research and scholarship to these ends.

  2. Jonathan Hughes says:

    I think you are right that the Reading University response is quite a common one in that it focuses on bringing in individuals from ‘poor post code areas’. On reflection I think you are probably right to suggest that as it stands the OU’s own Widening Participation strategy doesn’t go very much beyond this (apart from targeted outreach and community partnerships). I think that your brief history of the very different response of OU faculties to being asked to produce an action plan and to report on recruitment and attainment targets highlights this. I guess that I had in mind that different HEIs would come up with different approaches to widening participation. I still think it would be interesting to do some desk-top research and see what sorts of widening participation strategies other universities have, and I know that Liz Thomas at Edge Hill University and the Higher Education Academy has done some work of this nature with HEI’s Widening Participation Strategic Assessments. You never know we might find that some have ideas that we could draw on. And if we didn’t we would be clear that the sector tends to operate with fairly stereotypical responses to widening participation – and the need for CIC to do something different would be even more apparent.

    The other thing that strikes me about the disparate OU faculty responses to widening participation is that it begins to suggest the focus and the extent of the role of CIC.

    I’m completely in agreement with your comment at the end of your third paragraph where you suggest that the important stuff is ‘the nuts and bolts of learning and teaching, of delivery and reception.’

    I also agree with what you have to say in your last paragraph which I think takes forward the points I was trying to make about the way that CIC should be in a position to make a distinctive contribution to widening participation and improving the understanding of widening participation through research. You write that you think CIC might offer ‘the possibility of the aims of a widening participation agenda, now newly challenged by extremely tough public funding realities, realised not through a resource intensive outreach and community engagement initiative or by the pursuit of registration from targeted groups, but rather through a grass roots reconsideration of what we are offering students in terms of curriculum, its delivery and the additional support we provide’.

    I like the way in which this differentiated focus is both something that we can all ‘pursue with vigour’ and the way it can be presented as a way of broadening out the OU’s Widening participation Strategy. The suggestion that this strategy should be broadened to include curriculum innovation, inclusive practice and widening participation research and scholarship is something that I think should be taken forward. Not only could it be seen as a very immediate contribution from CIC I think it would act as a very useful framework for our work.

    I also think that contained within the point you make about what we are offering students is the kernel of the mission statement we were looking for last week. I think it’s a really exciting prospect to discuss but I think before we get too carried away we do need to double-check that our perception of what other HEIs see as widening participation is fairly accurate.

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