Widening Participation: unpacking a portmanteau concept

By Dr Karen Campbell, Research Fellow in Educational Research and Evaluation 

A railway station luggage trolley carrying a stack of leather suitcases.
Photo by Raquel Brepohl @Unsplash

This post explores the current use of the term ‘Widening Participation’ in the context of implications for policy and practice in the post-pandemic landscape.

Inequalities exacerbated

In his interim report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on fair access to higher education, Sir Peter Scot, Commissioner for Fair Access, reports that the greatest burden has fallen on those institutions that have the highest proportions of students from disadvantaged areas but also the most limited resources. That is, despite the interventions made to mitigate the impact of the pandemic by institutions, COVID-19 has exposed, and exacerbated, existing inequalities of access to higher education. 

Themes explored in the Commissioner’s report include digital poverty, online learning, the student experience, mental health, financial hardship, articulation and examinations, grades and contextual admissions. The impact of Covid-19 in each of these areas highlights existing inequalities in access to and participation in higher education and the need to take effective, urgent action is signalled.

Access to what?

Mitigating the impact on access will, however, only be part of the widening participation agenda in the next phase. The question remains: access to what? In other words, it is not enough to focus on those ‘getting into’ higher education, unless ‘staying in’ higher education and ‘moving beyond’ higher education are also considered. Without these considerations any gains in access will not be consolidated. The fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to fare less well in terms of progression, retention and completion is well established and prompted Barefoot (2004) to refer to HE’s ‘revolving door’. 

Thus, arises the question of the distinction between two terms that are routinely confused and conflated in UK public policy, by social theorists and by practitioners: access and participation

Access’ is generally accepted to be concerned with getting into HE and interventions associated with widening access, such as outreach or induction activities, tend to focus on the point of entry. 

Participation,’ on the other hand, encompasses the whole student life cycle from pre-entry to, progression through, and successful completion of the programme. 

Widening participation’ broadly refers to the widening of the social groups that benefit from higher education and should not be confused with ‘increasing’ participation which is simply about adding to student numbers and does nothing to advance social justice.

Social class differentials in HE participation rates are crucial to understanding under-representation. However, widening participation is about far more than merely recruiting a wider range of school-leavers to existing full-time programmes ‘on campus’. It involves thinking about older, part-time and work-based students, care-experienced students, student carers, estranged students and veterans, for example. It encompasses issues of gender, ethnicity, disability, geography, equality and diversity. 

It is also important to acknowledge the diversity of diversity. That is, to move beyond monolithic categories to look at where different social characteristics intersect, thus acknowledging people’s multiple identities. Viewing widening participation students as a homogenised group risks a deficit approach at the expense of more sophisticated and student-centred measures that reflect the diversity of the student body (Butcher et al., 2012). 

The Scottish context 

Policy and practice in Scotland, it could be argued, is confused given the tendency to conflate access and participation. This situation is not progressed by the recent addition of various adjectives that precede either nouns such as ‘equal’ or ‘fair’. 

While we have a new Commission on Widening Access, the individual charged with achieving this strategic vision is the Commissioner for Fair Access. The Commission’s first report (2016) refers to a philosophy of equal access yet the scope of the Commission’s work and the end goal is quite clearly to widen participation in HE. 

One of the outcomes from the Commission’s work was the development of the Toolkit for Fair Access which brings together the best available evidence of the most impactful interventions. The Toolkit’s website, however, describes the purpose of the tool as providing ‘an accessible summary of the most impactful interventions to promote fair access to, successful participation in and positive outcomes from higher education’. In other words, it lists both widening accessand participation interventions. Delve a bit deeper into the Toolkit and you’ll find that ‘access’ and ‘participation’ are used interchangeably.

The Commission also established a Framework for Fair Access, yet the framework is designed to “Cover the entire learner journey, from early years to adult returners, and include awareness-raising, admissions, retention, progression and outcomes” (SFC, 2019). A more accurate title may perhaps be ‘A Framework for Widening Participation

Part of the work of the Framework for Fair Access was to set up a community of practice. Thus, the Scottish Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP) was established. What is the difference between access and participation practitioners as one is implied? What practitioner role would involve one with no reference to the other? 

What do we know?

Access and participation have overlapping but differentiated boundaries and understanding widening participation is made complex since definitions can be confused and contradictory, with access and participation routinely conflated. There is no agreed UK-wide definition of widening participation. It is yet to be seen whether the introduction of access and participation plans by the Office for Students may go some way to address this issue in England where definitions are now outlined as part of widening participation monitoring. 

Why does it matter?

Several authors have pointed out that approaches to widening participation may differ markedly between institutions and the lack of an agreed definition may serve to keep such differences latent. The absence of a single definition does nothing to support learning and teaching objectives. Research indicates that the term ‘widening participation’ means different things to different members of Higher Education staff (Stevenson et al 2010Howieson, 2015). This matters since staff awareness of Widening Participation has an influence on their teaching, learning and assessment practice and the potential to impact on student success. 

The way forward 

In light of the SCAPP development of an accreditation framework for practitioners in Scotland, might now be a pertinent time to recognise the need for a sector-wide discussion of the terminology around access and participation to move towards an agreed common language? 

Without such a conversation, greater clarity and consistency in the terminology will not be achieved and we won’t have the context in which to ask the bigger questions: What are the barriers to accessing and participating in HE moving forward during recovery? Will ‘blended learning’ exacerbate existing inequalities? 

The post-pandemic recovery may be the time to advance this area. In order to achieve it, however, the Scottish sector will need to work more closely together than ever before. If this does not happen, we risk failing the students who already stand to lose the most from this present crisis. Perhaps a starting point might be to agree that widening participation should be the default term as participation surely subsumes access? In other words, one cannot participate in HE without having first accessed it. Furthermore, participation should be used in preference to accesssince our focus should be on the entire student journey to and through HE and should include all those learners who stand to gain from it.

References and useful reading:

Butcher, J., Corfield, R. and Rose-Adams, J., 2012. Contextualised approaches to widening participation: a comparative case study of two UK universities. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning 13(1), pp.51-70.

Howieson, C., 2015. Widening access: Next steps, Centre for Educational Sociology University of Edinburgh.

Stevenson J., Clegg S. and Lefever, 2010. The discourse of widening participation and its critics, London Review of Education 8 (2) 105-115.

Scottish Government, Commissioner for Fair Access, The Impact of COVID-19 on Fair Access to Higher Education, Report, December 2020

Scottish Funding Council, Scottish Framework for Fair Access

Scottish Framework for Fair Access

Toolkit for Fair Access 

Scottish Community of Access and Participation Practitioners (SCAPP)

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