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Raising institutional aspirations for supporting Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater students in higher education

  • 7 December 2022
  • By Natalie Forster

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Natalie Forster, Research Fellow in Applied Health and Social Care at Northumbria University.

The idea of ‘raising aspirations’ has long been recognised as problematic in the field of widening participation. A focus on aspiration can blame members of under-represented groups themselves for their low rates of participation, and critics of this stance instead point to the structural barriers and lack of encouragement which can limit expectations of higher education study for these groups. Furthermore, while notions of aspiration or expectation for higher education study are often discussed at the level of individuals and communities, institutional aspirations and expectations for widening participation work often receive much less attention. 

This blog explores how higher education institutions across the sector frame their aspirations and expectations for supporting Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater communities; groups acknowledged as the most disadvantaged in the UK education system. It draws upon research funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education, in which we explored how these communities are portrayed in widening participation research, policy and practice.

The research involved multiple components, including a systematic literature review; an analysis of all Access and Participation Plans published for the period 2020-21 to 2024-25; and consultation with Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater students, widening participation specialists and academics on recommendations for future policy, practice and research in the field. 

Echoing above concerns about the focus on ‘aspiration’, findings point to the dominance of an individual hero type narrative within the literature in this area. It represents Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater students as ‘trailblazers’ and portrays their participation in higher education as atypical, emphasising personal triumph over adversity. Narratives of Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater participation in higher education as unusual were reflected in, and potentially reinforced through the lack of attention to these students in Access and Participation Plans. Only 86 of the 245 plans reviewed (35 per cent) made any reference to Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater communities, and of these, only 14 (16 per cent) target them explicitly. These findings are perhaps unsurprising given that current Office for Students guidance frames Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater inclusion in plans as optional. 

The inequalities experienced by Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater communities when it comes to higher education appear to be presented (at least for the time being) as an intractable issue, and a degree of reticence to address the problem is palpable. ‘We haven’t enough data’, ‘they are too small in number’, and ‘we’re a small institution’, form common refrains for a lack of action to support Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater communities within plans. While understandable, the limited aspirations and expectations of institutions with regard to their ability to affect change on this issue is likely only to reproduce barriers for these students. 

How, then, can we raise institutional aspirations to tackle the higher education exclusion experienced by Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater students? Greater regulation of higher education institutions through Access and Participation Plans was one suggested mechanism, with experts consulted upon strongly supporting the inclusion of Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater students among the groups that providers must assess their progress for. The National Good Practice Pledge on supporting Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater students into and within higher education was also identified as helping to achieve buy-in across the sector on this issue.

We do need more data, and institutions should ensure Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater students have appropriate options and feel safe to disclose their ethnicity. However, limitations in data and small numbers of higher education students should not be seen as a pre-requisite to action. Narrow, predominantly numerical definitions of data could be widened to incorporate qualitative and more creative approaches to generating evidence. Furthermore, broader activities to promote equality (such as including attention to Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater cultures and histories within the curriculum and providing anti-racist training for staff, students and future professionals) can and should be undertaken regardless of current numbers of students from these backgrounds. Regional and cross-institutional collaboration could also be encouraged through Uni Connect partnerships (see ongoing work by Go Higher West Yorkshire, for example) to help to maximise resources and overcome challenges in supporting small student groups.

While we certainly have a long way to go to achieve equality in higher education access, success and progression for Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater communities, political and institutional paralysis on this issue is no use. Instead, we urge higher education policymakers to raise their expectations for work to support these students in the sector and call upon providers to take the plunge (or the Pledge!) and to start thinking creatively about how to improve higher education provision for Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showmen and Boater members of our communities.

Future HEPI events:

  • On Tuesday 13 December 2022, HEPI and the University of the Arts London are hosting an event to launch major new research on new HE funding options, produced by London Economics. More information is available here.

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