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Reaching Beyond the School Gate: Making University Outreach More Meaningful

  • 8 January 2021
  • By Alex Blower

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Alex Blower, University of Portsmouth. Having worked in university outreach teams since 2012, completed his doctoral research in education and inequality in 2020. You can find Alex on Twitter @EduDetective

I began working in university outreach back in 2012. Since then, universities have – quite rightly – been under increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of their widening participation activities.

Across the sector, the most common model of student engagement focuses on schools. We look at educational institutions that have a large proportion of students who are under-represented in higher education, we contact that institution and we deliver activity to their students in an almost exclusively educational setting.  

This model makes practical sense for universities. It is an easy way for institutions to target activity and engage students who, it could be argued, would benefit most from the outreach work that universities deliver.

More students, persistent gaps

But, given the changes to the landscape of higher education since the publication of the Dearing Report in 1997, have we embedded our work within a model that has reached the limits of its success?

It is no secret that we are operating in an environment where university participation has experienced a seismic expansion. In the 2019 UCAS End of Cycle Report, it was highlighted that there were 541,240 applicants accepted to UK higher education institutions. Although the numbers sound impressively large, within such statistics are stories of persistent gaps in participation amongst under-represented groups. Gaps in which little meaningful progress has been made. Indeed for white working-class males, the subject of my doctoral research, UCAS data suggests that the proportion continuing on to higher education is as low as 12.2 per cent.

Working with students who are going to university anyway

Why is this? Well one of the answers may lie in a conference I attended back in 2019. The keynote speaker, Dr Neil Harrison (Deputy Director of the Rees Centre, University of Oxford) posed a question relating to our engagement practices in university outreach. Essentially Dr Harrison argued that much of the work we do as practitioners is targeted toward students who are probably already going to university (they just don’t know which one yet).

If that assertion rings true, then can we honestly say our work to widen higher education participation is meaningful?

If our current modus operandi in widening participation is to engage young people who are already going to university, then maybe it’s time we sought to adjust it.

It is time to review our model

Working with schools will always form a core part of university outreach teams’ activities. But if we are to successfully meet the challenges around access to higher education that have persisted, we need to broaden our gaze. These challenges are not faced by students in isolation. Often, they are shared among friends and family members. They are embedded within socioeconomic contexts and are woven into the fabric of communities.

That is not to say that universities shouldn’t engage with schools, it’s an instrumental part of the work that outreach practitioners conduct. But if we want our work to have the impact that we would all like it to, should it constitute all of the work that we do? How often do we step back and consider who is not in the classroom when we’re standing at the front extolling the virtues of higher education?

Taking outreach out of the classroom

Recently, I began some work to evaluate a widening participation initiative based in the West Midlands. The project used a model of detached youth work as its primary mode of delivery. Youth workers met with young people in local parks, outside fish and chip shops and in community spaces which were a far cry from the school classroom. The model built engagement with young people through work in the community. This was then complemented by supplementary activity at a local high school, bridging the gap between the two.

During interviews with stakeholders, I heard accounts of work conducted with students and families who most certainly wouldn’t have sat in the ‘probably already going to university’ camp. Indeed, rather than debating the merits of higher education participation, many of the families were facing much more pressing concerns such as regularly having enough to eat and keeping a roof over their heads. Reflecting on the relationship between the youth workers and the young people, a number of teachers at the school voiced their surprise at the rapport developed with students who had been marked as ‘disengaged’ within a classroom context.

In conversations about their practice, the youth workers described their commitment to empowering young people; providing a mechanism for them to access social and cultural resources that were on their doorstep, but hidden. This was a model of university outreach which worked with a community. A model which focused on the development of relationships built upon foundations of mutual respect.

Through their work they regularly engaged with parents, extended family members and other key individuals within the young person’s social network. Individuals who, within the current model of engagement commonly deployed by university outreach teams, are all too readily written off as ‘hard to reach’. In turn they became an important source of information, advice and support for the young people, opening a door for the students to engage with on-campus activity at the local university. A door which, once opened, provided a means to access social and cultural resources which would have otherwise remained inaccessible.

Stepping outside the front door

Rethinking our model of engagement provides an opportunity for outreach practitioners and universities to adopt a different approach. One which deepens work withcommunities in a new and different way. It would be a clear, visible, display of a civic commitment, providing a vehicle in which to drive activity with young people for whom, arguably, the current model of engagement for widening participation has systematically overlooked.

If university outreach work is to engage meaningfully groups of underrepresented students rather than those who are the easiest to reach, it needs to adapt. Are these students really ‘hard to reach’? Or have we just forgotten how to step outside of the front door?


  1. Alison Reeves says:

    An interesting piece – thank you. Many years ago when I worked in an inner city Further Education college, there was an Aim Higher initiative – I think government funded. This was an excellent way to reach those students where HE was not a topic of conversation at the dinner table. I know we had many students from backgrounds where typically they would not progress in this way seeing for the first time an alternative future. These were often students who flourished at college in a way not possible in School. I’d be interested to know if such initiatives were still out there -I suspect not.

  2. Albert Wright says:

    Very interesting piece which supports more outreach into FE Colleges and less into schools in order to widen participation by under represented groups into University.

    However, we need greater clarity around the objectives and justification for “widening participation” which seems to me to be like trying to push water uphill.

    Why do we want to do it? Is it to help the individuals who otherwise would not go to Uni? Why?

    Is it to help other students at the Uni by expanding diversity of origin and letting the “usual” students engage with those from less affluent backgrounds?

    Is it to help society? If so, how?

    Is it likely to work effectively and is it a sensible use of resources?

    Historically, Universities have sought to recruit those who have shown academic ability / those who have done well at school / those who have been successful in exams and consequently, those who would benefit most from further academic training / skills development.

    By widening participation, are we diluting University education?

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