We know that the need to attach to an identity is something that grounds us in purpose and allows us to describe ourselves, and offers terms that provide others with an understanding of what we do, where we are coming from, what we are about. Individuals, organisations, collectives, all benefit from attachment to identity. And this blog is no different. In seeking to reflect its purpose, myself and colleagues in the Centre for Inclusion and Curriculum increasingly ponder this.
Widening Participation is a beguiling term, used interchangeably to describe an action, an ideology, a government initiative, and increasingly a profession within and without HEIs. I would argue that the term has provided an effective hook on which to hang the vast swathes of new effort to address under-representation in higher education, both in terms of research and practice, that share clarity of focus and purpose, not seen before in higher education. ‘Carrots’ of funding council student premiums and organisational funding streams to set up Aimhigher and other national initiatives, as well as (superficially) simple measures – for example the now expired target of 50% of 18-30 year olds in higher education – have created a vibrant industry of WP activity over the last ten or so years.
However, we are now entering a new period of higher education in the UK, and we are now just beginning to think about how to adjust to fundamental structural changes brought about by global economic insecurities, translated by the current UK government into restrictions of funding for HE. The Conservative party voice in the coalition government sees efforts to widening participation in a very different manner to the previous Labour government, subscribing to the convenient caricature of the gifted-but-poor estate kid, rather than acknowledging the breadth and complexity of systemic under-representation in higher education, of which the estate kid is just one example of many. I therefore see a benefit in adjusting the terminology we use to bind our efforts, and from within which we articulate the on-going challenges of under-representation(s) in HE. This adjustment of terminology leads us into other familiar terms: access, equity, social justice, inclusion. What such terms give us is the opportunity to re-construct, or perhaps resurrect, the problem of under-representation in higher education and not lose sight of the very complexity of issue which should be the starting point of activity. Such complexity includes the under-represented clever estate kids, but it also includes all the underrepresented others. And fundamentally, it provides HEIs with the responsibility to reconsider not their outreach efforts, chasing postcode premiums, but rather their core offer to students: the ir curriculum, the way in which is delivered, and the additional support offered. What are the risks of a shift away from widening participation? The very clarity of focus which has galvanised 10 years of activity across the post-compulsory education sector (and until the cancelling of Aimhigher partnerships, across the compulsory education sector also). Move too far away from associations with WP and you may detach yourself from the hitherto most effective vehicle for articulating our efforts. But since we are already beginning to see how little we can expect in terms of central funding ‘carrots’, and also how little universities and HE colleges are likely to be able to find in their coffers for expensive WP programmes, returning to first principles of equity and inclusion appear to offer the room in which to manoeuvre.
You’ll be pleased to know that these paragraphs have a purpose: hopefully to provide some context to explain the change of name for this blog. We’ve included inclusion. And as we move forward into the next few years, framing widening participation in discourses of inclusion will hopefully bind us, at least at the Open University, in useful and productive activity, both in research and scholarship, but also practice. And so, for example, the OU’s next biennial conference will foreground this shift: Discourses of Inclusion in Neo-liberal Higher Education, which will be held on 25 and 26 April 2012 in Milton Keynes, UK, offers a forum for international discourses of inclusion in higher education to be showcased. It takes up a view that researchers and theorists, policy-makers and practitioners all have a voice in discourses of inclusion, and much is still to be learned and understood both individually and between these groups. Further details available here.