Introduction to Widening Participation

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.



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


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

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:


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:


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



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

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:

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

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. - 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


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:

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 - 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:


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:



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

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.

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 - 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:



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

London: Sutton Trust.

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

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:

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 - 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

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:


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.














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




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



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.



Archer, L., Hutchings, M. and Ross, A. (2003) Higher education and social class: issues of exclusion and inclusion.  London: Routledge

Cassen, R. and Kingdon, G. (2007) Tackling low educational achievement.  York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

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

Department for Education and Employment (2000) Youth Cohort Study. London: The Stationary Office

Department of Employment, Education and Training (1990) A Fair Chance for All: Higher Education that’s within everyone’s reach (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service)

Gorard, S., Smith, E., May, H., Thomas, L., Adnett, N. and Slack, K. (2006) Review of widening participation research: addressing the barriers to participation in higher education.  A report to HEFCE by the University of York, Higher Education Academy and Institute for Access Studies.  Bristol: HEFCE available at:

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

HEFCE (2001) Supply and Demand in Higher Education Bristol: HEFCE

HEFCE (2005) Young participation in Higher Education, Bristol: HEFCE

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

Hudson, T. and Pooley, C. (2006) Recognition and Support for Widening Participation Practitioners. London: Continuum, University of East London.

Jones R. and Thomas L. (2005) “The 2003 UK Government Higher Education White Paper: a critical assessment of the implications for the access and widening participation agenda”, Journal of Education Policy 20 (5) 615-630

Kennedy, H. (1997) Learning Works.  Coventry: Further Education Funding Council

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.  

Quinn, J. (2006) Mass Participation but No Curriculum Transformation: the Hidden Issue in the Access to Higher Education Debate, in Jary, D. and Jones, R. (eds) Perspectives and Practice in Widening Participation in the Social Sciences.  Birmingham: Centre for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics

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

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

Schwartz, S. (2004) Fair admissions to higher education: recommendations for good practice.  Admissions to Higher Education Steering Group,

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

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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

Sutton Trust (2007) University admissions by individual schools.  London: Sutton Trust

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

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

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