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Introduction to Widening Participation

Page history last edited by Nick Livsey 12 years, 5 months ago

This page is based on a piece of research by Dr Robert Jones which was commissioned by the Higher Education Academy. It can be viewed in its original unedited form herePage Not Found



Core definition

Widening Participation (WP) is a term associated with addressing patterns of under-representation in higher education. 


Alternative definitions

Whilst the origins of widening participation policies clearly lie in liberal ideas of equality of opportunity, it is less clear to see how existing patterns of under-representation in HE are to be resolved. This gives rise to different strands of widening participation activity which incorporate quite divergent interpretations of the term. On the one hand, and following e.g. Stuart (2002), Jones and Thomas (2005), Quinn (book and C-SAP) and Archer et al (2003), it is argued that serious reforms to the HE sector are a pre-condition for entry by more culturally and socio-economically representative cohorts. Such reforms will include e.g. the development of a more responsive curriculum, a more inclusive institutional ‘habitus’ and the introduction of practices which facilitate progression and completion for groups for whom study at the higher level would hitherto have been unthinkable, or at least, unlikely. 

On the other hand, it may be argued that the HE sector is already capable of becoming more culturally and socio-economically representative, and that any current instances of under-representation arise from factors located beyond institutions and higher education more generally. For example, some argue that differences in qualification levels amongst socio-economic groups (which have their origins in secondary schools) account for the differences in HE participation rates.

This may also include the view that a major hindrance to broader patterns of participation is to be found in the ‘low aspirations’ of non-participating groups – or at least, suitably qualified non-participants. Such non-participants are, according to this perspective, capable of entering and succeeding in HE but assume the contrary. From this it follows that the target of policies and interventions is the individual (or group), rather than the institution or HE sector more generally. Consequently the aim is to encourage target groups to gain the relevant qualifications, or to apply for courses for which they are already qualified.

Although casting the widening participation debate in these quite polarised terms is somewhat reductionist, it does help to illustrate the potentially rather contrasting positions found in this area of HE policy. Thus although there may not be an explicit range of alternative definitions of widening participation, there are various interpretations of the idea, and accompanying forms of policy and practice.  In addition, a number of alternative terms are sometimes used.


  • Diversity: although this may be used interchangeably with widening participation, it can also signify specific areas of policy separable from those associated with generic practices of widening participation. For example, because this latter idea began its usage with a focus on class and socio-economic status, diversity may be used to indicate activity to address other aspects of under-representation, particularly ethnicity.
  • Inclusion: whilst this term may be used to signify policies and practices to facilitate entry for all types of under-represented groups, it is perhaps currently used primarily in relation to tackling issues linked to disability.
  • Equality: this is usually used in relation to equality legislation, which now requires higher education institutions to develop and implement equality schemes in relation to race, disability and gender. 
  • Equity: this is a term used primarily in Australia for engaging with under-representation in HE (e.g. indigenous people, but also those from lower socio-economic groups and the disabled) (see e.g. DEET, 1990) in higher education.


Summarily, it must be acknowledged that all these terms are subject to a degree of overlap and fuzziness and that their meaning and use are context-dependent. More pertinently, contexts of use are far from fixed. In particular, policy (with all its attendant categories, designations and prescriptions) tends to develop at a hectic pace. For instance it can be stated that although, in the UK, the term widening participation relates primarily to those from lower socio-economic groups and with disabilities, measures of socio-economic status have varied (Thomas and Quinn 2006). E.g. they may focus on parental occupation (or occupation of applicant if over 21), parents’ educational attainment, income, or geographical location. Needless to say, these variations will create further important nuances within the idea of widening participation.   To date widening participation has centred almost exclusively on undergraduates (cf. Stuart et al 2008).

These alternative definitions give differential weight to economic and cultural capital, and thus shape the types of policies and interventions implemented to improve access to higher education and to enable success within HE.  The Higher Education Funding Council for England has issued targeting guidelines; these stress that resources should be targeted at learners with the potential to benefit from higher education who come from under-represented communities:

…these learners are from lower socio-economic groups (groups 4-8 in the National Statistics Socio-economic Classification, NS-SEC), and those from disadvantaged backgrounds who live in areas of relative deprivation where participation in HE is low… we expect that few will have parents or carers who have themselves had experience of HE…it is appropriate that we should prioritise learners whose parents/carers do not have that experience.  (Further details are available from http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2007/07_12/)


Development of the idea of widening participation

Since the publication of Learning Works in 1997 (also referred to as the ‘Kennedy Report’), the term widening participation has been adopted by central government and features prominently in policy documents aimed at addressing under-representation in higher education. It thus underpins the government’s commitment of moving towards a 50% rate of participation before 2010 – a goal announced some time prior to the election of 2001 (e.g. DfEE 2000). At the heart of this debate lies an important distinction between increasing and widening participation. This difference has perhaps become increasingly tacit in policy discourses over the past decade but it warrants further discussion.

In the first instance, widening participation was set against the practice of increasing participation in further education. The policy of widening participation was first developed (Kennedy, 1997) within the context of further education and the intention was to address patterns of recruitment which had arisen as a consequence of competitive practices introduced following incorporation. With their new found autonomy, some colleges of further education had expanded by playing what can, crudely, be referred to as a numbers game – drawing in the maximum quantity of new students for the minimum degree of effort. This was seen to result in an uncharacteristic neglect for FE’s traditional audience – working class people, those who had been failed by compulsory schooling, and potential entrants positioned on the social or cultural margins, etc. Thus the idea of widening participation was set against this, and aimed to end the numbers game, and to reorientate colleges towards reaching out to those who for whatever reason were disinclined to undertake formal study.

By the turn of the millennium, widening participation had moved into the context of higher education. Here it was inflected with a slightly different emphasis. It did not signify the excesses of competition. Rather, it related to the notion that since HE had expanded in the 1990s and participation in HE was strongly class related, the only way in which participation could be increased still further was by reaching out to lower socio-economic groups (HEFCE 01/62). The concept therefore became more sharply focused on under-representation - specifically, on the rates at which those from lower socio-economic groups, and more recently with disabilities, were progressing to HE.


At this juncture it is pertinent to acknowledge an important precedent to the policy of widening participation in HE. Prior to this, what might be termed ‘non-standard entry’ was conceived primarily in terms of ‘access.’ Woodrow (2000) subsequently distinguished between access with a capital ‘A’ and access with a lower case ‘a.’ The former denoted entry via the provision of Access courses – programmes delivered in the further education sector with the express intention of preparing and qualifying adults for study at the higher level. By contrast, the latter lower case definition of access was broader, calling for a wider set of reforms and arguing that under-representation in higher education can only be addressed if the issue is properly researched and politicised. Obviously such a position poses questions to the adequacy of Access courses as a main approach to facilitating entry to university by underrepresented groups. By the late ‘90s however, this definition of access was in turn eclipsed by the idea of widening participation - although it should be noted that Access courses still provide an important means for adult returners and mature students to progress to HE.


Key research reports


1. Higher Education Academy and Equality Challenge Unit (2008) Final report on the research and development outcomes of the ethnicity and gender degree attainment project.

York: Higher Education Academy http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/projects/detail/Ethnicity_Degree_Attainment_project

This report provides an outline of the research and development outcomes of the Ethnicity, Gender and Degree Attainment project, undertaken by the Higher Education Academy and Equality Challenge Unit between 2007 and 2008.  The project focused on an exploration of:

  • understandings and perceptions of degree attainment variation across institutions and among academics and students;
  • ways in which current Race Equality Policies and Gender Equality Schemes helped higher education institutions in addressing issues of attainment variation;
  • relevant teaching, learning and assessment activities and issues.


The research showed that even after controlling for the majority of contributory factors, being from a minority ethnic group (except the Other Black, Mixed and Other groups) was found to have a statistically significant and negative effect on degree attainment.  It also found that females are more likely to obtain higher degree classification than males, except when it comes to attaining a first.  Other findings include:


  • The causes of degree attainment variation with respect to gender and ethnicity were found to be unlikely to be reducible to single, knowable factors.
  • While quantitative data collection at institutions was often found to be sophisticated, in some cases the research indicated a gap between the collection of data and subsequent analysis and action.
  • Institutional perceptions of the reasons for differential attainment according to ethnicity and gender appear more certain on a general level, but there is less clarity about contributory factors at the individual institutional level.
  • Further linkage and coordination is needed at governance, strategic and curriculum development levels between principles and practice of equality and diversity, and learning, teaching and assessment functions.
  • More research and development activities are needed to strengthen demonstrably fair, inclusive and helpful assessment and feedback regimes for all students.
  • While a good level of student support activities are provided by institutions, it is important to resist a tendency to view students as the core problem, instead of other factors.
  • While the general importance of Equality and Diversity committees is well recognised across the sector, these committees are not always sufficiently empowered to support the effective integration of equality and diversity principles across the university. Strategic attention to the role, level of representation and responsibilities of these committees is vital for the generation of an inclusive ethos and supportive policy and practice.
  • Race Equality Policies and Gender Equality Schemes do not appear to inform HEIs’ engagement with attainment issues. A report of the institution’s relevant activities, to include indications of progress against actions, should be a prominent feature of a university’s profile.


To improve understanding and practice in relation to attainment, ethnicity and gender issues, the following recommendations for institutions are made:


  • Ensure that information gained from management information systems etc, is used for reflective institutional analysis and action planning, ideally through impact assessment, to close the loop between data collection, data analysis and action planning.
  • Implement systems that can evaluate, review and design teaching, learning and assessment activities in light of data on degree attainment variation.
  • Combine and co-ordinate equalities issues with those of attainment (e.g. linking together Learning and Teaching Strategies, Race Equality Policies and Gender Equality Schemes to develop inclusive practices).


2. Shaw, J., Brain, K., Bridger, K., Foreman, J. and Reid, I. (2007) Embedding widening participation and promoting student diversity. What can be learned from a business case approach?

York: Higher Education Academy http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/assets/York/documents/resources/publications/embedding_wp_business_case_approach_july07.pdf

This report presents the findings from a research project commissioned by the Higher Education Academy about the drivers, benefits and costs of embedding widening participation and student diversity that might be used as elements of a business case approach to encourage and support institutional change.  The study encompassed both a literature review and institutional case studies to explore how WP and diversity policy and practice is constructed, understood and implemented by different internal stakeholders.


A number of potential benefits to HEIs of widening participation and increasing the diversity of the student body were identified from the literature and the case studies as follows:

  • Increasing student numbers improves the financial viability of individual courses, departments or the whole institution
  • Attracting a larger pool of highly qualified  or ‘gifted and talented’ applicants, enhances reputation and/or maintains high academic standards
  • Diversity improves teaching and learning with positive outcomes for all students
  • Diversity improves the social experience for all students
  • Widening participation can provide access to external funding streams which support institutional strategic aims or contribute to financial viability
  • Widening participation can generate new institutional roles and markets, resulting in reduced reliance on Funding Council grants
  • Complying with antidiscrimination and equality legislation is necessary to avoid litigation
  • Corporate social responsibility can be demonstrated through widening participation strategies, institutional mission etc.


In addition, a number of cross-cutting themes emerged:

  • the understanding of the term ‘diversity’ was patchy and often confined to issues of ethnic diversity;
  • widening participation is a problematic term and was being used in different ways;
  • the evidence for a link between student diversity and positive teaching and learning outcomes is still limited and remains under-researched;
  • the HE sector is partially marketised and the resultant stratification may perpetuate the different ‘WP paradigms’ that limit the scope for promoting student diversity right across the sector;
  • HE in FE was outside of the scope of this study, but is likely to provide some important evidence and practice examples, especially through HE-FE partnerships.
  • Overall, there was a lack of understanding of the concept of a ‘business case’ for WP and student diversity among the case study HEIs. But the findings suggest that a viable and useful business case could be constructed.


3. Quinn, J., Thomas, L., Slack, K., Casey, L., Thexton, W. and Noble, J. (2005) From Life Crisis to Lifelong Learning. Rethinking working class ‘drop out’ from higher education.

York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. http://www.jrf.org.uk/bookshop/details.asp?pubID=730 - Page Not Found

This research used a range of qualitative methods – including research jury days, interviews with 67 former students and a set of commissioned international studies - to explore the experience and implications of leaving higher education early for students from non-traditional backgrounds, particularly lower socio-economic groups and first generation entrants.  The research found that although some students drift away, for many it is a significant decision – perhaps the first decision that they make, and it is not taken lightly.  The reasons for withdrawal included issues such as being on the wrong course, academic challenges, a lack of institutional belonging and non-university commitments.  Perhaps surprisingly the research found that leaving higher education was not necessarily a disaster, rather students had sound reasons for withdrawing early and in addition most students felt they had gained skills, confidence and life experience from their time at university. Furthermore, all but one intended to return to higher education.


4. Hudson, T. and Pooley, C. (2006) Recognition and Support for Widening Participation Practitioners.

London: Continuum, University of East London http://www.uel.ac.uk/continuum/publications/index.htm


Widening participation to Higher Education is a vibrant community of practice which has its own specific support and recognition needs. Providing opportunities for staff involved in widening participation to develop their skills and knowledge and to gain recognition for them is critical to sustaining and embedding widening participation across the education sector.  This study aimed to:

  • identify the existing accreditation opportunities to support widening participation practitioners;
  • identify and explore potential unmet recognition and accreditation needs; and
  • develop proposals as to how such practitioners could be supported.


The study included a review of existing learning and training opportunities and an online survey, the findings from which were reviewed at a practitioners’ workshop.  The on-line survey was used to gather information on the opportunities that widening participation practitioners have already taken advantage of; as well as identifying and exploring their support and development needs. Practitioners were invited to participate in the survey through a series of targeted e-mails using existing e-mail distribution lists such as JISC mail. In addition all Aimhigher Area Coordinators were advised of the scoping study to enable them to encourage their WP practitioners to contribute to the survey.  The findings from the survey suggests that there is significant demand for more appropriate learning opportunities, in particular more recognition and accreditation opportunities from work-based learning and other non-formal learning activities.



5. Thomas, L., May, H., Harrop, H., Houston, M., Knox, H., Lee, M.F., Osborne, M., Pudner, H. and Trotman, C. (2005) From the margins to the mainstream: embedding widening participation in higher education.

London: Universities UK http://bookshop.universitiesuk.ac.uk/downloads/margins_fullreport.pdf - Page Not Found

This report is the outcome of a project commissioned by Universities UK and the Standing Conference of Principals (SCOP). This is the third in a series of reports undertaken to explore how universities and colleges in the UK are supporting access to higher education for young people from lower socio-economic groups (the previous studies, From Elitism to Inclusion and Social Class and Participation, were published in 1998 and 2002 respectively).  The study included institutional case studies and analysis of UCAS data. 


The study finds a strong commitment to widening access and student success in all types of higher education institutions, and it identifies many examples of good practice. In addition, there are challenges and areas for further development.  In summary:


  • There is greater awareness of the need to target students, but the target groups need to be more clearly defined in a way that can be operationalised. Selection should ensure that students who would not otherwise have entered higher education are reached. There could be more widening participation initiatives targeted at work-based learners.
  • There is a large amount of outreach activity taking place, which includes increased work with primary school pupils and greater involvement of parents.  Effective strategies have been developed to promote access to the more selective institutions and disciplines. Outreach activities are being combined to create outreach programmes, offering sustained engagement with pupils.
  • The participation rate for young students in higher education with two or more A-levels or higher is approaching 100%. Work needs to be extended to increase the number of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs or equivalent and to develop vocational qualifications and routes into higher education at different levels. This needs to be coupled with more structural flexibility to facilitate part-time and distance learning.
  • There is greater awareness of the importance of transition and the first year experience and the associated impact on retention and success. In particular, there is more emphasis on developing students’ understanding and expectations about higher education prior to entry. This process needs to be extended into higher education, especially through induction processes.
  • To support students during their studies some degree of institutional change is required. There is institutional commitment to widening participation, but further integration throughout the institution is still needed in some instances. The widening participation premium has assisted the integration of widening participation. For example, there is increased academic support for non-traditional students in all higher education institutions and some changes to the mainstream curriculum. Institutional development requires recognition of the benefits of widening participation for both the student body as a whole and the institution itself. This in turn enhances the sustainability of interventions.
  • There are a greater number of collaborations with a wider range of external partners including further education colleges, schools, other higher education institutions, local education authorities, professional bodies, businesses and community groups. Collaboration has proved to be an effective way of widening access to higher education and can provide access to sources of additional funding and resources.
  • There is a good level of routine monitoring of interventions, increased use of pilots and learning from previous widening participation projects, to expand initiatives and influence institutions more broadly. This is supported by more research about widening participation and developmental evaluation about interventions. Tracking students into, and through, higher education remains challenging. This is hampered by the lack of national data to allow tracking and comparison with non-participants. A second challenge is measuring the impact of widening participation. Effective techniques need to be developed, staff capacity needs to be built and funding made available for impact evaluation.


6. HEFCE (2006) Widening participation: a review.

Report to the Minister of State for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Bristol: HEFCE


At the end of 2006 HEFCE undertook a review of widening participation activities in the sector.  A questionnaire was issued to HEIs at the end of August 2006 and returned at the end of September, in addition the review includes an update from the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), information about Aimhigher and a discussion of new and existing work to encourage access and progression for vocational learners. The review contains two main messages:


  • there is evidence of real progress in embedding widening participation as part of the core mission of all higher education institutions and this commitment should be carefully reinforced and nurtured
  • widening participation practice and the evidence base (what works and why) can be improved. There are lessons about the way widening participation activity is organised and delivered and how it is targeted. There are also lessons about the pattern of engagement that suggest relatively simple steps that can be taken to improve substantially both effectiveness and the evidence for success.


The report provides a useful summary of the range of activity taking place across the sector and provides some insights into further work that needs to be undertaken.


7. Raphael Reed, L., Gates, P. and Last, K. (2007) Young Participation in Higher Education in the Parliamentary Constituencies of Birmingham Hodge Hill, Bristol South, Nottingham North and Sheffield Brightside.

Bristol: HEFCE http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/rdreports/2007/rd16_07/

This report is a summary of studies undertaken in four constituencies - Birmingham Hodge Hill, Bristol South, Nottingham North and Sheffield Brightside - to understand better the local and situated nature of processes that appear to be producing low rates of progression to higher education in the four areas.  The report adopts a socio-cultural approach to provide a rich and complex picture of the processes that underpin the low rates of participation of young people from these constituencies in higher education. Educational outcomes in the constituencies reflect the dynamic interplay of cultural, social and economic factors across space and time. These interactive processes are implicated in the formation of learning cultures, identities and trajectories in the constituencies. The study presents a case for higher education institutions to embed their support for widening participation directly within the educational provision for the constituencies in question and to promote situated forms of action, based on a sound understanding of local areas. This, among other things, speaks of a different relationship and new forms of partnership between schools, local authorities, further education, higher education, business and young people, their families and the wider community.


8. Davies, P., Slack, K., Hughes, A., Mangan, J. and Vigurs, K. (2008) Knowing where to study?  Fees, bursaries and fair access.

London: Sutton Trust. http://www.suttontrust.com/annualreports.asp

This study investigated the impact of financial considerations on sixteen to twenty year-old students’ decisions about participation in higher education. The research found that nearly two-thirds of students who had decided not to pursue study in higher education reported that avoiding debt had affected their decision ‘much’ or ‘very much’. Over half of all the students surveyed who were thinking of going into higher education were considering a local university because of the financial implications. The research also looked at students’ awareness of bursaries and found that while most students understood the meaning of the term, only a small minority had actively search for information and nearly half did not know whether they were eligible or not. Had they known that they were eligible for a bursary of £2,000 nearly 85% of those from low income homes said it would have encouraged them to apply.

The researchers found that information provided by schools tended to focus more on money management while at university and information on financial support came too late to affect their decision or whether or not to apply to university. At present, many students are only introduced to the options after they have effectively made their decisions. The complex range of options facing students also discourages efficient decision-making. The research suggests that a smaller number of larger bursaries will make more difference than a larger number of small bursaries. Unless a bursary is large (say £2,000 or more) it will be unlikely to exert much influence in the face of other factors that bear upon a student’s financial situation.



9. Ramsden, B. and Brown, N. (2007) Variable tuition fees in England: assessing their impact on students and higher education institutions. A first report.

London: Universities UK http://bookshop.universitiesuk.ac.uk/downloads/variable%20fees.pdf - Page Not Found

This is the first in what is intended to be a regular series of short publications. It will enable the effects of the new variable fees arrangements for UK and EU domiciled full-time undergraduates attending Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funded higher education institutions (HEIs) in England to be monitored.  It brings together a range of information from publicly accessible sources and the institutions themselves about the demand for higher education, the nature of the student body, the fees and bursary arrangements and the financial situation of institutions. The report’s purpose is to provide a baseline for considering the effects of the changes introduced in England in the autumn of 2006.


The data presented in this first report allow some preliminary reflections on the impact of the implementation of the variable fees policy:


  • In 2005 there was an above trend increase in applicants, as some applicants brought forward their applications. For 2006 entry the level of applicants fell modestly. However, across the two years 2005 and 2006 institutions have experienced a median increase of 10 per cent in the level of applicants compared to 2004. Furthermore, the ratio of applicants to the size of the 17-year-old population was higher in 2006 than in 2004 although it fell slightly between 2005 and 2006.
  • Between 2002 and 2005 the proportion of acceptances through UCAS from minority ethnic groups and from the lower socio-economic groups was quite stable. There was a very modest increase in the proportion from minority ethnic and mixed groups and a similarly modest increase in the proportion from the two lowest socio-economic groups.
  • Full-time UK domiciled undergraduate enrolments rose by 0.3% between 2003/04 and 2004/05. It will be of particular interest to see how far the strong increase in applicants for entry in 2005 was matched by increased first-year full-time undergraduate enrolments in 2005/06 when the figures become available.
  • Part-time undergraduate enrolments fell between 2003/04 and 2004/05 with a fall of over 5 per cent in those entering part-time first degree programmes. This probably reflects the increased proportion of the 18-21-year-old age group entering higher education over the last 15 years. Any increase in part-time undergraduate demand would require investigation to see whether or not it was related to introduction of variable fees.
  • There was a wide variation in the change in first-year enrolments by subject area between 2003/04 and 2004/05 with significant falls in computer science and business studies. Enrolments in creative arts and design and in social work and professional areas such as nursing, teaching and social work all showed significant increases.
  • There is a wide variation in the bursary and scholarship schemes that institutions are establishing. There is no evidence of a correlation in the change in the level of applications for fulltime undergraduate places by institution and the relative generosity of their proposed student support arrangements. Indeed some of those offering the most generous support have seen substantial falls in the number of applications between 2005 and 2006.


10. Sutton Trust (2008) Ten year review of Sutton Trust summer schools.

London: Sutton Trust. http://www.suttontrust.com/reports/TenYearReview-SuttonTrustSummerSchools.pdf

The Sutton Trust introduced summer schools to the UK over ten years ago, and since that time over 6,000 students have attended Sutton Trust summer schools.  The Ten Year Review draws on both quantitative and qualitative evidence to examine the impact of the summer schools. The picture that emerges is that summer schools are an extremely positive experience for those taking part.  Benefits identified by the participants include: applications support, admissions support, academic preparation to ease transition, social benefits such as meeting like minded people, developing social skills and confidence and meeting academic staff, engagement in extracurricular activities at university and progression beyond university degrees. The review highlights some issues for consideration for future summer schools - for example the extent to which they should all offer financial advice for prospective university students.  In purely academic terms the success of the Trust's summer schools is demonstrated by the high proportion gaining top class degrees at leading universities. A recent economic analysis meanwhile has revealed startlingly financial returns in terms of extra earnings generated for participants compared with the cost of running schools.  Yet one of the most powerful points that comes across in this review is the recurring theme of students telling the researchers how for the first time they found like-minded people during their university stay - after feeling isolated in their own local schools. Such experiences, unrecognised by the statistics, show how summer school can be life transforming.  Many participants felt passionate about the value of the summer schools and wanted to ‘give something back’.  Some went on to be volunteer undergraduates on future summer schools, while others entered the teaching profession to assist students from similar backgrounds to progress to HE.


11. Sutton Trust (2007) University admissions by individual schools.

London: Sutton Trust http://www.suttontrust.com/reports/UniversityAdmissionsbySchool.pdf

This report documents the extent to which a few highly socially and academically selective schools dominate admissions to the country’s leading research universities. The study also suggests that the differences in the admissions rates to elite universities cannot be attributed solely to the schools’ average A-level results, and that other factors are at work – particularly at the most successful schools.  The key findings of the research in relation to Oxbridge admissions are:

  • 100 elite schools – making up under 3% of 3,700 schools with sixth forms and sixth form colleges in the UK – accounted for a third of admissions to Oxbridge during the last five years.
  • At the 30 schools with the highest admissions rates to Oxbridge, one quarter of university entrants from the schools went to Cambridge and Oxford universities during the five years.
  • The schools with the highest admissions rates are highly socially selective. The 30 schools are composed of 28 independent schools, one grammar, and one comprehensive. The 100 schools with the highest admissions rates to Oxbridge are composed of 80 independent schools, 18 grammar schools, and two comprehensives.
  • Overall, the top 200 schools and colleges made up 48% of admissions to Oxbridge during the five years, with 10 per cent of their university entrants going to the two universities. The other 3,500 schools and colleges accounted for the remaining 52% of admissions, with one per cent of their university entrants going to Oxbridge during the period.


Further analysis looks at admissions to the so-called ‘Sutton Trust universities’ – Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Nottingham, St Andrews – with similarly stark findings. The study raises two key questions:


a)    While university admissions are dominated by a small cadre of elite ‘feeder’ schools, what can be done to open up these schools to a broader section of society, so that talented children from all backgrounds have the same opportunities to develop academically?

b)    What can be done to enable other schools to improve their pupils' prospects of going to leading research universities, and more specifically, what can they learn from the most successful schools?


12. Cassen, R. and Kingdon, G. (2007) Tackling low educational achievement

York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation http://www.jrf.org.uk/bookshop/details.asp?pubID=901 - Page Not Found

This study uses data from the Pupil Level Annual School Census and the National Pupil Database to explore why tens of thousands of students leave school every year at 16 with no or very limited qualifications.  Four measures of underachievement are used: students who achieve no passes at all in their GCSE/GNVQ exams at Key Stage 4; those who obtain nothing better than a D in any exam; those who do not achieve a pass in at least one of English or Mathematics; and those not achieving at least five passes at any grade including English and Maths. The great majority of low achievers – more than three-quarters – are white and British, and boys outnumber girls. They come mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds. But many students from the same backgrounds succeed. The girls come from the same families and mostly go to the same schools, but do much better.  Low achievers are commonly to be found in poor urban areas. But there is very considerable variation among schools and local authorities. Some schools with high proportions of disadvantaged pupils do much better than others. And there is a considerable range of performance among different ethnic groups.



13. HEFCE (2005) Young participation in Higher Education.

Bristol: HEFCE http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/hefce/2005/05_03/

This detailed report looks at young participation in higher education, that is the proportion of young people who entered higher education over the period 1994-2000. For the first time it provides measures that are accurate enough to monitor changes in overall participation rates year on year, and to monitor differences in participation between young people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Patterns of young participation are set out in detail, with measures of the experiences of young people before, during and after their time in higher education. The report defines the most and least advantaged families according to where they live. Web-based maps showing these local patterns of participation (known as POLAR – Participation of Local Areas) are also available.



14. Stuart, M., Lido, C., Morgan, M., Solomon, L. and Ackroyd, K. (2008 forthcoming) Widening Participation and continuing to postgraduate education. Decision making, deterrents and creating success.

York: Higher Education Academy

Policy, practice and research about widening participation have focused on the undergraduate level. There is very little research that considers access to postgraduate education, especially in relation to family background. This Higher Education Academy funded research project, led by Kingston University, has used quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the preferences and experiences of final year undergraduate students at two universities linked to progressing to postgraduate study.


In relation to widening participation and postgraduate student the project suggests:


  • Class background is not a direct barrier to continuing on to PG study
  • Debt is not a barrier to postgraduate study but worry about debt is a barrier (however there is a relationship between class and debt worry).
  • Gender does not seem to be a barrier to postgraduate study, rather women are slightly more inclined to continue than men
  • Students continue to postgraduate study because they want to improve their employment prospects – those who have studied applied subject at undergraduate level are much less likely to go on to postgraduate study because they think they can get a job on the strength of their undergraduate degree, while students studying theoretical subjects are more likely to enter PG education
  • First generation students are much less likely to go on to postgraduate study, than students whose parents have a degree (in particular their fathers)
  • International students are more likely to go on to postgraduate study
  • Minority ethnic British students were considerably more likely to go on to postgraduate study than white British students
  • If students have children, the age of the children has a significant impact on intentions to go on to postgraduate study, with the older the children making it more likely to go on to further study, which can be easily understood.


The more prevalent reason for not going on to further study was the desire to take a break from study, and in the qualitative interviews it was clear that students who had continued with their studies at postgraduate level were doing so because they enjoyed studying - as well as believing it would improve their employment prospects.


WP Policy in HE in the UK

In an effort to overcome under-representation of significant parts of the population in higher education, the English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish funding bodies have sought to encourage HEIs to widen participation.  Suffice to say, the effects of devolution are creating a more complex policy environment. Commonalities of approach include an emphasis on partnership and collaboration between HEIs and other sectors (especially in England, Wales and Scotland) to extend access to HE, payments to HEIs to support the retention of students from under-represented groups, and recognition of the need to improve vocational routes into and through HE. By contrast, variations in approach can be seen with regard to student finance, especially the introduction of deferred ‘top-up’ fees and maintenance grants (in England), and the differential rates of funding to support widening participation activities.



Over the last ten years the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has introduced a number of measures.


  • One of the earliest approaches was special initiative funding, which involved institutions bidding for comparatively small pots of money for short-term projects (usually a maximum of three years, and often much shorter periods).  The bidding process, the short-term contracts and the lack of funding security made this an unpopular way of allocating resources for widening participation with HEIs.


  • Aimhigher has been the major vehicle for widening access to HE. Aimhigher supports regional and area partnerships between HEIs, schools, colleges, employers and other agencies to promote interest in higher education, encourage applications and prepares potential entrants for study at the higher level. These partnerships are required to increase participation in each geographical area and to address low rates of participation by students from lower socio-economic groups, low participation neighbourhoods and by those with disabilities. The area partnerships have confirmed funding until July 2011, though the funding for regional partnerships will cease on 31 July 2008.


  • Annual performance indicators were introduced in December 1999 (HEFCE 99/66) and are now available annually from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).  These measure the extent to which each HEI meets its “institutional benchmark in relation to recruiting students from state schools, lower socio-economic groups (based on parental employment) and low participation neighbourhoods (or “postcode indicators”). Although the “institutional benchmarks” are intended restrict comparisons to similar types of institutions only, the indicators are often used for purposes other than those for which they were intended and they have led to comparison between institutions – a practice which is discouraged by the funding council (on the grounds that comparisons may not take account of institutional specificity).


  • Postcode indicators have been utilised to provide HEIs with additional premium funding to enable them to recruit students from under-represented groups and support their additional needs in higher education.  The allocations are determined on the basis of students who complete their year of study. The formula funding for the widening participation allocation for both full-time and part-time students is split: approximately 20% for widening access and 80% for improving retention and student success.


  • HEFCE also makes a mainstream disability funding allocation to institutions reflecting the proportion of students in receipt of the Disabled Students Allowance.


  • In 1999 HEIs were asked to prepare Initial Strategic Statements (99/33), and, building on this process, in 2001 they were asked to prepare a “Widening Participation Strategy and Action Plan” for the next three years (HEFCE 01/29).  Although this is no longer a requirement, the funding council encourages institutions to continue to prepare a widening participation strategy.


  • The Higher Education Act 2004 allows HEIs to charge students top-up fees of up to £3000 per year from 2006. Although this is seen by many as detrimental to the goal of widening participation, students no longer have to pay up-front tuition fees. In addition, institutions are required to have a bursary scheme in place to assist poorer students and to make every effort to ensure that applications are socially inclusive. The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) was established as part of the 2004 HE Act to work collaboratively with institutions to meet these conditions and ensure that the introduction of variable tuition fees has no detrimental effect on widening participation (OFFA, 2004/01). Institutions that decide to raise full-time undergraduate tuition fees above the standard level must submit an Access Agreement to OFFA setting out how they will safeguard and promote fair access – particularly for students from low income groups – through bursary and other financial support and outreach work. Increased fee income will be used to attract students from lower socio-economic groups to aspire to HE and to provide bursary support for students from low income backgrounds. All HEIs in England charge top-up fees, and early evidence shows that outreach and bursary support differs markedly between institutions, largely dependent on their mission and market position


  • The Government has targeted the promotion of fair access as a key priority area. In its higher education Widening Participation Strategy (DfES, 2003), the Government outlined the action being proposed under four headings including attainment, aspiration, applications and admissions. As part of its proposals for admissions, the Government argued for admissions to be on merit, achievements and potential, irrespective of class, background or school attended. The strategy also referred to the commissioning of research, led by Professor Steven Schwartz, to identify good practice in admissions. The Schwartz Report (2004) provides recommendations for fair and transparent admissions processes to promote equality. The report proposed five principles of a fair admissions system:

    •    It should be transparent;

    •    It should enable institutions to select students who are able to complete the course as judged by their achievements and their potential;

    •    It should strive to use assessment methods that are reliable and valid;

    •    It should seek to minimise barriers for applicants; and

    •    It should be professional in every respect and underpinned by appropriate structures and processes.

    The Government hope that all universities will adopt these principles and those wishing to charge a higher tuition fee will need to demonstrate to OFFA that they subscribe to them. Amongst others, OFFA is charged with a principal duty to promote fair access.  The extent to which HEIs have adopted the five principles is the subject of a review of admissions being co-ordinated by the organisation Supporting Professionalism in Admissions (SPA).


  • The Government is committed to improving the parity of vocational and academic qualifications. This will require improving vocational routes into and through HE. Lifelong Learning Networks were created as an outcome of the Joint Progression Strategy (2004) developed by HEFCE, the LSC, and DfES to advance vocational access and work-based learning and progression into and through HE. The networks are formed by groups of further and higher education institutions to offer improved/new progression routes for vocational learners and promote lifelong learning.  http://www.hefce.ac.uk/widen/pubs/lifelong.doc - Page Not Found


  • Recent equality legislation requires HEIs to develop and implement equality schemes for race, disability and gender. The legislation dictates that HEIs must take a holistic approach: they must be proactive and make anticipatory adjustments to their policies and practices, rather than expect assimilation by students. It is necessary for HEIs to consider their culture and ethos and demonstrate that they are working towards the generation of a positive and proactive learning environment.  This necessitates the leadership and commitment of senior managers.  The equality legislation covers institutions and employers as well as all aspects of their delivery as service organisations.


  • In England just over 10% of HE is delivered by Further Education colleges (FECs) –HE in FE.  Around 160 FECs are directly funded by HEFCE, the remainder being indirectly funded through partnerships, franchises and consortium arrangements.  HE in FE is a key element in delivering HE opportunities to those who may wish to study locally, who may progress to higher education via vocational and work-based routes, and who may have returned to learning through the familiar setting of an FE.  The 2003 White Paper made it clear that the government sees FECs as being significant in delivering their HE widening participation objectives, mostly in terms of foundation degree provision.  Foundation degrees were launched in September 2001. They were designed to be a new intermediate vocational HE qualification, developed in partnership between FE colleges, HE institutions and employers. Foundation Degrees are required to make provision for those achieving the two-year foundation degree to progress to a full honours degree.  See http://www.fdf.ac.uk and http://www.foundationdegrees.org.uk.




The Scottish Executive is strongly committed to expanding the participation of students from under-represented groups, particularly the most economically disadvantaged.

  • Inter-institutional collaboration within and between sectors is viewed as one of the key mechanisms for improving participation by students from under-represented groups.  This has resulted in the establishment of single funding council.
  • The ‘Learning for All’ Report remains the key document underpinning the Scottish Funding Council’s widening participation strategy. A National Advisory Group has been set up to support the work of the Council in taking forward the report recommendations. The latest update can be found on the SFC website at: http://www.sfc.ac.uk/publications/Learning%20for%20all%20measurements%20of%20success.pdf. - Page Not Found
  • Further education colleges play a very important role as providers of HE level provision  (HE in FE).
  • The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SQCF) offers a means to accumulate and transfer credit across institutions and sectors (see QAA 2001 and SQCF 2003 for details). The SCQF website provides further information: http://www.scqf.org.uk/
  • Institutions receive formula-based grants to support the access and retention of students from neighbourhoods with participation rates of less than half the UK average (the widening access premium) and disabled students (the disabled students premium), the part-time incentive premium and the FE/HE articulation grant.
  • There are four regional access forums (sic), which were established in 1998/9, and which span both the further and higher sectors. In 2004/05 the role of the forums was strengthened, and given a more strategic focus. Together they provide a range of coordinated actions, including a variety of initiatives to raise awareness and aspiration among primary and secondary school pupils who attend schools with low progression rates into HE. These include partial support of some large-scale school-based initiatives such as GOALS (Greater Opportunity of Access and Learning with Schools) and LEAP (Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools).  They are currently finalising their new business plans with the Council, which include a five year strategy and a two year operational plan. Their focus has extended to promoting and supporting participation in post-16 education and on developing programmes of partnership activity rather than individual projects.
  • In September 2007 Skills for Scotland: A Lifelong Skills Strategy was published and it is available at: http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2007/09/06091114/0




In Wales widening access to HE is delivered via three linked policy/funding initiatives:


  • the Widening Access Premium Funding for institutions recruiting students from low participation neighbourhoods; widening access funding based upon HEI success in recruiting from social classes 111M-V, based on a sectoral average which all HEI’s are expected to attain; and
  • Reaching Higher Reaching Wider (RHRW) partnership project funding, which supports four regional partnerships to widen participation in four themes: disability, ethnic minorities, socio-economic position and Welsh language medium provision.  RHRW is closely linked to the Welsh Assembly’s education policy.  The initiative was project based but is now mainstreamed.
  • The Skills Action Plan is intended to improve vocational routes into higher education and to support lifelong learning.


The widening access target for Wales states that ‘the proportion of young people accessing HE from low participation neighbourhoods should increase from around 25-30% to 40-50% by 2010.


Northern Ireland

Since the overall participation rate in higher education is already much higher in Northern Ireland, the 50% target for increased participation in HE in England has less significance and has not been adopted. But, encouraging increased access, supporting lifelong learning and maximising achievement for all who can benefit from higher education are key strategic priorities.


Widening access to higher education is mainly delivered through projects and institutional premiums, plus the Aimhigher Roadshow.


  • Each of the two universities in Northern Ireland runs an access project focusing on outreach. ‘Discovering Queen’s’ at Queen’s University and ‘Step-Up to Science’ at the University of Ulster are projects aimed at widening participation in higher education. The projects target students from under-represented groups and involve working in partnership with schools with low levels of progression to HE.  These projects form a major strand of the Universities’ widening participation strategies and sit alongside Access courses for mature students, Foundation Degrees and part-time degree provision. The main aims of the projects are to stimulate demand for HE from underrepresented groups, raise expectations, improve attainment and progression rates and effectively tackle the marginalisation and exclusion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • There is project funding aimed at assisting disabled students, including a project to establish a register of support workers for students with specific learning difficulties, e.g. dyslexia support workers, readers, note takers.
  • The HEIs receive a widening access premium to support the retention and success of students from low income families. Unlike the rest of the UK this is not delivered through the post-code premium but on the basis of the number of students who do not have to pay fees as a result of means testing.
  • The disability premium is based on the number of full-time undergraduate students in receipt of Disabled Students Allowance.
  • Universities are required to produce widening participation strategies which detail activities, targets and performance indicators regarding the recruitment, retention and progression of students from under-represented groups.
  • Institutions charging fees must have an Access Agreement, which includes the provision of student bursaries.  Access Agreements sit within the Widening Participation Strategies. These strategies link into the Regional Strategy for Widening Participation.
  • The Aimhigher Roadshow is a communications campaign that aims to provide clear information and better marketing of the routes to HE for young people in Northern Ireland. The Roadshow, housed in a high tech trailer, visits schools and colleges across the province to promote the benefits and dispel the myths about HE. The Aimhigher Roadshow is a partnership between the DELNI, the Department of Education and the Ulster Bank.



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