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Why we need to stop using the term widening participation

  • 17 December 2021
  • By Stacey Mottershaw

This blog was contributed by Stacey Mottershaw, Lecturer and Faculty Director of Taught Student Social Mobility at Leeds University Business School.

When reading David Woolley’s recent post on The pervasive belief in low aspirations could undermine the Government’s ‘reboot’ of widening the doors to higher education, exploring the Government’s intention to implement a Lifelong Loan Entitlement, it struck me that much of what he said about improving low aspirations also applies to the sector-wide use of the term widening participation.

As a first-generation applicant, student, graduate and scholar with a working-class heritage, I’ve long believed that the term ‘widening participation’ does not comfortably fit the varied characteristics of the group it is intended to represent. 

Firstly, the word ‘widening’ seems to imply an act of goodwill – that universities are somehow being kind in opening the application pool up beyond the traditional elite, doing a favour to those who would otherwise not be eligible. Secondly, the use of the word ‘participation’ is equally (if not more) problematic, implying that the issue with improving access to higher education is about a lack of participation by individuals, rather than systemic issues which result in access rates for poorer areas  being below 30 per cent, while more affluent areas experience access rates of more than double this or the limited progress on reducing the access gap between students who are eligible and not eligible for free school meals, particularly at high tariff institutions. This ties into a deficit narrative which places the problem of accessing higher education with individuals, rather than because of inequalities which have been baked into the system, as noted by Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan in their open letter to the Office for Students.

It is also worth noting here that at no point have I ever felt that the people using the term widening participation are using it with malice. More often than not, the term is used by those who are trying to resolve issues around access, continuation, attainment and progression. Indeed, I have also used the term as a sort of shorthand, usually when discussing positive interventions for this diverse group. It can be argued that the term itself is harmless; the intention is positive, and in any case, we have to call them something, so what else, if not this? 

While the intent may be positive, the consequence of using inaccurate language is not. As David Woolley noted in his piece on low aspirations, language matters. Students who are defined as coming from a ‘widening participation’ background may feel othered within their institution. In a time where universities are encouraged to help students establish a sense of belonging, this label can feel unhelpful, and may actually help to promote a sense of unbelonging, including for staff who also identify as being part of this group. I’ve worked with students who say the term has made them feel ashamed; they worry their peers might think there is something wrong with them, that they don’t really deserve to be here. As someone who works hard to ensure that our strategic and operational goals support these students above all else, this is absolutely heart-breaking to hear. 

So, if not ‘widening participation’, then what? Throughout my career to date, including a brief stint nearly a decade ago as an Outreach Officer and more recently as Faculty Director of Taught Student Social Mobility, I have instead chosen the (admittedly somewhat cumbersome) phrase ‘applicants/students/graduates from backgrounds or with characteristics that are typically under-represented in the sector’ or, more simply, ‘under-represented applicants/students/graduates’. This reframes the narrative, placing issues around access, continuation, attainment and progression squarely at the foot of the sector, rather than with the individuals themselves.

It would be remiss of me to talk about the language of widening participation, without also recognising the synergies between this and the rephrasing of attainment gaps. Referring to disparities in outcomes as awarding gaps places the issue with institutions, rather than with the students. There are also similarities with the use of the term BAME, which is seen as problematic, aggregated, unhelpful, emphasising certain minority groups. These moves to improve the language we use demonstrate that as a sector, we can get the terminology wrong, but that we’re also willing (and able) to do something about it.

I am just one under-represented applicant, student, graduate and scholar in a sea of many. I am acutely aware that my beliefs and feelings around this topic do not reflect the beliefs and feelings of applicants, students, graduates and scholars with characteristics that are under-represented in the sector. As a result, this is something that I intend to explore further through conversations with applicants, students, graduates and scholars, and it is something that I encourage you to do too. 


  1. K says:

    Great read Stacey. It’s refreshing to see that you are doing something about a not-so-recognizable issue you have identified. These things may seem inconsequential, but the narrative runs deep in minds and as you point out, in feelings . And, permit me to add, perhaps in – as a consequence – attainment. I am equally pleased that you have decided to explore this further in conversations as opposed to taking a knight-on-a-white horse approach. God speed!

  2. Yvonne says:

    I work in a University post that is badged and funded through our Widening Participation Strategy and Plan. I agree wholeheartedly that open use of the term to describe activities aimed at the diverse group of students who meet the WP criteria is both unhelpful and potentially excluding.

    We’ve tried to move beyond this by creating a ‘brand name’ for our WP-funded activities and services (that contains neither ‘Widening’ nor ‘Participation’)and by describing them as ‘exclusive offers’ to specified groups of students. This seems to have worked – to the extent that we get complaints from non-eligible students that they can’t access what’s on offer.

    However, we still have the issue that staff in WP-funded posts can – and do- feel ‘ghettoised’ and less secure than those in posts with mainstream funding.

  3. albert wright says:

    The phrase ‘under-represented applicants/students/graduates’ is a move in the right direction but, for me, not yet the total solution.

    “Under – represented” still has the implication of the “forgotten” / or “outsiders”. It reminds me of the phrase “left behind areas” which now seems to have fallen out of use.

    It’s hard to come up with the right words but we also need to better explain what we are trying to do with this element of “levelling up” and why.

    I think what we are trying to do is to “widen participation” and get a greater diversity of people attending University but not by “allocating / offering” places to a token quota of a range of different minorities or post codes, nor by allocating places simply by lot.

    It is not only language but also feelings that are important. The problem, I fear, is that most of us still want / feel that access to University should be based on some element of merit / talent within the applicants and we are not united on the best way to measure / define the criteria to be used.

    When it comes to going to school, we seek to educate everyone by virtue of their age and no further discrimination, whether it be ability or the possession of ginger hair.

    But when we look at access to University, access is not universal and we end up with the idea that only those who “are likely to benefit” should go and that will be limited to those who score the best points in exams, personal statements and interviews.

    For the time being, anyone entering University by other means is likely to feel they are “second tier” material as there is no clear “discount” to be applied to the usual tariff to take into account any academic under achievement that is not the fault of the applicant.

    It is difficult for University admission departments too, as they do not want unhappy students, or students that drop out of courses or become “problematic” while studying at their institution.

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