Widening Participation Activities

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There is a growing interest in universities in what they can offer to constituencies outside their traditional cohort of undergraduate and postgraduate students. One way in which they do this is by running Widening Participation events. This article explores what these are and how knowledge of them will help your chances as an academic job seeker.

What is Widening Participation?

WP is a collection of activities undertaken by universities to engage or reach out to school children and their teachers. These activities might be subject based so, for example, running a workshop led by academics to help children studying a certain topic. Or they might be generic, designed to raise aspirations among school children and make them want to apply to go to university. The activities provide a mutually beneficial situation for both parties: the university can showcase itself to potential applicants, and local schools get expert help in a particular subject area which they find challenging.

These activities might also be accompanied by events supporting school teachers, offering them training in a particular aspect of the curriculum or in particular skills. Many of these activities will be run after school in the evenings or at weekends so academics must be prepared to sacrifice their time in order to take part.

It is also possible to use these events to enhance the employability of your undergraduate students because they can become involved in helping you to run them. If they wish to go on to do a PGCE themselves this opportunity will be really helpful as it will distinguish them from their competitors.

Who does it?

Most universities are interested in outreach work because it fits into their impact and third stream income agendas and also enhances their potential to attract more candidates in the admissions cycle. Some universities have WP activities driven by a separate, centrally based department, but most run activities on a faculty or even academic department basis.

In an academic department, one member of staff will probably have the title of ‘schools liaison’ or ‘outreach officer’ or ‘WP coordinator’ and it is his or her job to lead these events for your department.

How can it help you as an academic job seeker?

Being able to discuss WP concerns at interview will enhance your profile. You will be able to contribute to this area especially if you have had experience as a school teacher, or a teaching assistant (either in state or private sector). If you have previously been invited into schools to discuss your work, this is something that you can offer to your new university.

If you did GCSE or A level marking while doing your PhD you can offer something unique to your new employer because you will have insider knowledge of what exam boards are looking for and so will be able to help your colleagues train school teachers. Offering these ‘added extras’ on top of an excellent research and teaching profile will make you stand out from other candidates.

If you find that a department to which you are applying has not yet a fixed strategy in place for developing WP activities, then this might be your opportunity to show leadership and describe how you would not only participate in such events, but would be prepared to take a lead and enhance your department’s involvement in them.

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