University Tips Blog
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by Jon Cheek


posted on 16 Oct '23

A guide to university fair access and widening participation

Text provided by Danielle Russo, when in post as the Head of Outreach and Widening Participation at St George’s, University of London

Defining Fair Access and Widening Participation

Fair access and widening participation are both terms used in relation to higher education. Fair access relates to admissions processes, while widening participation broadly refers to the widening of social groups that benefit from higher education.

The focus of Widening Participation is to work with under-represented groups that are statistically less likely to progress onto higher education. This therefore supports fair access to university, so everyone with the potential to succeed in higher education has equal opportunity to do so.

Who is under-represented in higher education?

The Office for Students (the regulator for higher education) considers the following groups to be under-represented in higher education:
• students from areas of low higher education participation, low household income or low socioeconomic status
• some black, Asian and minority ethnic students
• mature students
• disabled students
• care leavers
• carers
• people estranged from their families
• people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities
• refugees
• children from military families.

Often, Widening Participation activities will aim to work with young people who meet at least one of these criteria. We’re all really keen to support the young people where activities will have the biggest impact and teachers are invaluable in helping us to identify such students.

What sort of activities do universities run?

Universities differ in the approach they take to widening participation, so there will be similarities and differences. Examples of the type of activities delivered include summer schools, campus visit days, information, advice and guidance workshops, and long- term programmes where students take part in multiple different activities over a period of time.

Activities will be targeted at different age groups, often starting in primary school right through to Year 13. Often the overarching aim will be to support, inform and prepare individuals from under-represented backgrounds to achieve their potential and consider higher education as a realistic and achievable option.

A current focus for widening participation is on attainment raising. This might involve fully trained university students delivering subject- specific tutoring to school pupils.

Many universities also have contextual admissions schemes. Usually this means that applicants who meet specific criteria will be eligible for a reduced offer, so rather than being required to achieve AAB, they may receive an offer of ABB, for instance. Again, universities manage contextual admissions in different ways, but you can find out more on university websites.

How can schools get involved in university fair access and widening participation programmes?

I would encourage all teachers to contact university widening participation teams to find out more about the activities they can support you with. Many will have newsletters you can sign up for, to keep informed of activities and initiatives. Don’t be shy to talk about any ideas you have about the types of activities that would best support your students – we are here to help, so please get in touch!

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