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Challenging assumptions about widening participation in Higher Education

Tuesday, September 13, 2022 - 18:00 to 19:00
Berrill Lecture Theatre, Walton Hall, The Open University, MK6 7AA

In his inaugural lecture, Professor John Butcher will explore his research and practice in relation to widening participation in higher education and how his focus on the voices of ‘unheard learners’ has challenged simplistic sector assumptions that ‘students’ are merely a homogeneous conveyor belt of school leavers with good A-levels.

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What kind of higher education system do we want?

John Butcher, Professor of Inclusive Teaching in Higher Education at the OU, was born in 1956. In his lifetime higher education in the UK has changed beyond recognition.

From what might now be viewed as a narrowly elite system – in 1956, 3.5% of school leavers attended university to ‘read’ for a degree - a phrase now only occasionally heard in the team introductions to University Challenge, the numbers of institutions offering higher education has expanded.

It has expanded to include: The Open University of course; 30 polytechnics which became new universities and latterly, the expansion of alternative providers. Despite Tony Blair’s subsequently recanted assertion that 50% of young people should attend university, currently 40% of school leavers attend.

In this lecture John will explore the phrase most persistently associated with UK Higher Education (HE) over the last 25 years: ‘widening participation’. Popularised in the Dearing Review (1997), John will argue ‘widening’ does not carry the same meaning as merely increasing numbers. ‘Widening’ signifies breadth, inclusivity, opportunities for those potential students previously unable to access HE due to aspects of disadvantage. He will draw on a conceptualisation of three barriers to participation identified in Gorard et al (2006) as:

  • Dispositional
  • Institutional
  • Situational

John will first identify key aspects of his own ‘first in family’ transformative journey to make the case for widening participation as an active process. He will then draw out ‘unheard’ voices from his research with disadvantaged students to illustrate the need for institutional change – without which universities will remain stuck in a spiral of inflexible and narrowing participation, ignoring adults who may only be able to study part-time.

About Professor Butcher

Professor John Butcher is responsible for the development, enhancement and implementation of the institution's pan-University teaching curriculum. His previous roles include: Head of Academic Practice & Learning Innovation at University of Derby; Senior Academic Development Advisor at University of Northampton; Director of Learning & Teaching at University College Falmouth, and before that Staff Tutor in Education at The Open University. He began his career teaching and managing in post-16 education (FE and sixth form).

He is an active researcher. He has supervised 13 doctorates to successful completion and hie is currently supervising three doctorates in Widening Participation.

Timings Item
17:15 - 18:40 Registration, coffee and tea on arrival
18:00 - 18:40 Inaugural lecture: Challenging assumptions about widening participation in Higher Education
18:40 - 19:00 Q&A
19:00 - 20:00 Refreshments

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