This blog was kindly contributed by Dr John Butcher, Associate Director at The Open University .
Emerging from the Christmas break into a new decade, I have been struck by the amount of looking back that has filled our media. Consequently, I too have been reflecting, this time on a key issue in higher education policy, prompted by Maria Neophytou’s blog Widening Participation: an agenda for the 2020s.
For me, looking back has meant reflecting on the publication at the end of 2019 of a commemorative edition (20/20) of the international journal Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, marking 20 years of the journal. I wonder if an agenda for widening participation for the 2020s might be informed by research published over the last two decades, during which 69 issues of the journal were published, with over 450 articles going from peer review to publication.
The commemorative edition was neither the 20 greatest hits, nor a compendium of 20 years of published research, but rather a representative sample of some of the more interesting and stimulating articles the journal had published. Selecting one article from each year was an art rather than a science, but in the end, it did feel representative, with contributions from the UK, from Europe, Australia and Canada.
Trawling the history of the journal acknowledged the extent to which debates about policies aimed at widening participation remain contentious worldwide. It also aligned with the challenges facing lifelong learning on the 100th anniversary of the UK Ministry of Reconstruction’s final report on Adult Education. The range of topics covered could be broken down into four key areas, all of which retain resonance today and offer a still-necessary agenda for the next decade. The most popular was:
The participation of groups under-represented in higher education
Issues around the pressing need to improve BME participation and attainment are top of many universities’ access and participation plans in 2020. This is not new – a 1999 article on Muslim mothers in higher education identified the second language issue and the critical role played by mother tongue identity in the students’ learning. The authors aligned this argument with work on the importance of second chances for mature learners, an issue which has worsened in the last 20 years. A 2001 article from Ireland on travellers demonstrated an ethic group completely marginalised from higher education policy and practice discussions. It described a case study on raising achievement and providing a pathway to accessing post-compulsory education and training. Are similar opportunities aimed at the most excluded and under-represented groups sufficiently embedded in institutional policy in 2020?
Current guidance from the Office for Students identifies support for care leavers as a priority: a 2004 article on an aspiration-raising intervention with ‘looked after children’ reminded me of this and the Scottish government’s focus on care experienced learners. The nomenclature may have changed but the significant gaps in participation and success are recognisable, with issues of multiple disadvantage and traumatic experiences a significant barrier to engagement with higher education. This in turn mirrored a 2014 article reporting on the positive experience of care leavers in their final year at university, in which it was argued institutions can make changes in their practices which mitigate the battle against the odds and provide genuinely transformative higher education experiences. We can learn from past practice.
The need to more effectively support students with mental health disabilities has shot up institutional agendas. A 2007 article reported an effective approach to supporting students with learning disabilities or mental health issues, concluding that attitudinal change required a long-term strategic commitment. This feels an important contribution to the rapid growth of an issue which has caught some institutions unprepared.
Policymakers in 2020 are concerned with HE ‘cold-spots’ and the participation of students in remote/coastal communities. An Australian perspective on remote rural indigenous students was published in 2013, offering a range of strategies to break the cycle of communities not going to university. These included work with families, schools and community elders, as well as much improved information and financial support to mitigate fears about affordability – a theme echoed in a 2012 article on the impact of fees on Canadian coastal students’ decision-making about where to study. There is clearly something long-term that policymakers could learn from international research.
Finally, the participation of working-class men in higher education has developed. A 2005 article explored working-class drop-out rates, arguing that while most young men intended to return if more flexible study possibilities were available, the provision of support services were difficult to access. A 2017 article reported a narrative enquiry with an individual male student from a working-class background in which very different expectations about teaching impacted on his learning. Given the millions being poured into National Collaborative Outreach Programmes (NCOPs), much of which is aimed at addressing the participation of working-class boys, it might be that lessons about more flexible provision and inclusive teaching could be taken forward.
Another relevant issue included the policy and institutional barriers preventing equal access and success.
Some of the journal’s early editorials (2000, 2003) criticised the introduction of top-up fees (for the effect on disadvantaged students) and challenged selective universities on their recruitment of students from state schools. These twin issues persist like a recurrent echo, and clearly more needs to be done to shake the status quo. Other issues identified in editorials included the need to engage with parents/carers as influencers (2008), which still seems to be on the ‘to-do’ list, and the notion that all work-experience is not equal (2011), reminding us that access to elite professions can still depend on who you know, or more likely who your parents know.
A third issue might be represented by the need for inclusive and critical pedagogy
For example, a 2015 article argued that how we teach (inclusively, flexibly, plurally) was as important as what we teach if we are to engage learners from under-represented groups. This feels an under-researched area in relation to Widening Participation policies.
A final issue concerned the need for research to inform Widening Participation policy
For example, a 2016 article lamented the invisibility of research in access agreements and suggested little evidence of alignment between rigorous research and widening participation policy and practice.
I conclude, regrettably, that twenty years of research on widening participation and lifelong learning revealed a significant truth – despite all the efforts put in by practitioners and researchers over the 20 years, little has actually changed in relation to the inequitable gaps between access to higher education for the least and most privileged groups in societies across the world:
- there are still gaps in the extent to which students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds persist and succeed in their higher education studies;
- there are still potential students excluded from learning in universities because of inflexible institutional systems;
- there are still university teachers who resist the implications of teaching a more diverse student body; and
- there are still students who are forced to bend themselves to fit archaic university systems because institutions are unwilling or unable to become more inclusive
More positively, what emerged from scrutiny of the journal’s history was an important recognition that the field of widening participation is a rich one, but a complex and context-dependant one in terms of sharing effective practice. Published articles suggest numerous efforts have been made at institutional levels to widen access and support learners from disadvantaged backgrounds through the student life cycle. Specific groups have been targeted, cross-institution change initiatives have been explored, improvements have been made to enable individual learners to access higher education in greater numbers and succeed. But there is no silver bullet, no one-size-fits all answer to the stubborn and persistent problem of unequal access.
I hope the Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes in Higher Education (TASO), previously known as the Evidence and Impact Exchange, recognises this. Funded for three years by the Office for Students, this is described as part of the UK Government’s ‘What Works’ movement and is committed to the generation, synthesis and dissemination of high-quality evidence about effective practice in widening participation.
I do wonder if we have been asking the wrong question. Should we re-examine the notion that it is primarily 18-year-olds who are best suited to university? Should we invest in policies which produce real flexibility to enable greater participation? There remains much to be done in the 2020s, but I remain optimistic. A 2010 article argued against viewing the academic/vocational divide through the lens of the English class system, reminding us that the higher education system does not exist in a vacuum, otherwise universities would have remained an ‘exclusive club of male aristocratic heirs studying theology…’