What You Need to Know About Widening Participation

     
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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

As an academic jobseeker you will have to show that you know a great deal about the job you are applying for, not only about the institution where it is based but also about the higher education sector in general. One of the most important government initiatives of the last few years is the Widening Participation agenda. This article will explain what the initiative is and how it will impact your role as an academic and how knowing about it could get you a job.

What is widening participation (also known as WP)?

This is how Coventry University explains the WP agenda:

"This agenda is a philosophical position taken by the recent government to re-structure Higher Education and is based upon notions of equality. The aim of this agenda is to offer opportunities to groups within the population, who are under-represented in Higher Education, notably those from socio economic groups III-V; people with disabilities; people from specific ethnic minorities."

The government has targeted these groups in an attempt to increase their presence in the higher education sector. It aims to get 50% of school leavers into higher education. Students from lower socio-economic groups have always found it notoriously difficult to enter and succeed in HE so the government believes extra support should be offered to these students to help them to stay on their courses and complete them successfully. Universities are collaborating with schools, offering industry placement schemes and raising the aspirations of people within this group. Academic support and counselling are very important because students from these backgrounds will not be familiar with university culture and they may find it a challenging experience.

‘Diversity' and ‘equality' are buzzwords in the field of WP. The government's aim is to get each institution to think about its intake of students and to ensure that it is as diverse (ethnically and racially mixed) as possible. At institution-level, action plans have been drawn up but individual lecturers have also been asked to consider how their work might be made more relevant for minority groups and how their teaching methods might be best tailored not to alienate particular groups.

Institutions have also worked hard to ensure that they do not discriminate against disabled students in line with the Disability Discrimination Acts of 1995 and 2001. Much of this has to be done at management level, working to improve access to buildings for example. But individual academics also have a responsibility because they can ensure disabled students have extra help and support preparing for assessment and exams, such as encouraging the use of computers or scribes if necessary.

Controversial?

Some aims of WP are straightforward. It is known that university graduates are financially better off, and they are less likely to be unemployed and so opening the system up to traditionally unrepresented groups offers equality and choice. Social exclusion and alienation will be less of a problem if young people feel they have a solid future. But some academics and other commentators have not welcomed this agenda seeing it as government attempts at social engineering, that is, encouraging universities to take on certain sorts of students not based on academic merit. Others argue that universities are not the place to tackle these problems, but the initiative needs to begin in schools. Many of the potential students are not even getting as far as applying to universities, so the culture change has to take place in the school classroom not the university's admissions office. And indeed there are many initiatives taking place at school level to raise under-privileged children's aspirations, such as the Aim Higher projects.

How will it affect an academic's roles?

The department's admissions tutor will certainly get involved with all sorts of outreach projects to help bring in non-traditional students. The admissions tutor will also be working with the university's widening participation team in order to further this agenda. For example, as City University's guidelines for admissions state:

"City University confirms its commitment to equal opportunities in all its activities. The University must not discriminate against any applicant on the grounds of political belief, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, marital status, race, nationality, ethnic origin, religion or social background... The University is committed to widening access by raising awareness, within the pre-HE community, of the opportunities, expectations and achievements possible for those who can benefit from the offer of a place."

But as an ordinary lecturer you should think about how your teaching can be adapted to encourage the best performance in these sorts of students. You may find yourself offering extra support in the form of one to one tuition or providing lectures provided in written form or pastoral care to students unused to the university system. A new emphasis may be placed on workplace skills, making sure that the graduates you produce are not only schooled in your academic subject but also equipped to take their place in the world of work. This last factor will benefit all sorts of students not just those from non-traditional backgrounds.

How can knowing about WP help you to get a job?

The world of widening participation has created specific job opportunities. For example, many higher and further education colleges now recruit members of staff to be part of the widening participation teams. These sorts of posts will involve raising the profile of your institution in the wider community and ensuring that non-traditional students are welcomed and encouraged to attend. The job will often involve some travelling as you will be representing the institution to the wider community.

More traditional academic roles also have a place in the widening participation agenda as mentioned above. Even when starting out at beginner lecturer level it is important to show your interviewers that you have awareness of issues such as this and also of how the institution you want to work for tackles these challenges. For example the way that a very prestigious research-driven university reacts to the WP agenda will be very different from a post-1992 university. Knowledge of this sort of issue is paramount if you are going for a more senior post within a department, especially the kind of job where you will one day be expected to take on managerial and strategic roles.

For more information on WP, please see the following:

HEFCE's research

John Denham on WP

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