Within this blog, I am discussing my research paper ‘Blurred Boundaries – Encouraging greater dialogue between Student Recruitment and Widening Participation’. The opportunity to produce this came through a widening participation writing course co-ordinated by the Office for Fair Access. This offered widening participation practitioners the chance to produce a piece of academic research.
My rationale for producing the paper was to ask:
-Is the current policy approach working? (This was somewhat rhetorical!)
-Through consultation with professionals within the field, can the sector learn lessons which can influence future Higher Education policy?
-How can student recruitment and widening participation work together to become integrated into the wider student lifecycle?
From the research I conducted, it is clear that student recruitment and widening participation have always been intrinsically linked. As far back as The Robbins Report, the concept of widening access to Higher Education to stimulate economic growth has been engrained within governmental policy, and periods of growth within the sector have been stimulated by widening access for students from poorer backgrounds.
In recognition of this, many institutions are operating in a ‘Student Lifecycle’ context, with colleagues from across an institution inputting into decisions regarding recruitment and widening participation. This should in theory be a bonus from a schools liaison perspective, as providing schools with singular contacts and continuity has long been a goal for Higher Education Institutions.
The whole notion of a ‘Student Lifecycyle’ is not a new concept; a Vice-Chancellor who I interviewed commented “We were doing a student journey 15 years ago in our heads,” and whilst Liz Thomas’s ‘Understanding a whole institution approach to widening participation’ is gaining traction, as far back as 2002, Thomas had argued “widening participation is an institution-wide activity”.
Outgoing Office for Fair Access Director, Professor Les Ebdon seemed excited by “the opportunity that the Office for Students offers in bringing about a step change in widening participation” and “we will have a whole regulator approach […] in which students will be at the centre of its thinking”.
In my own opinion, a single regulator is positive in that since OFFA and HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England)’s Joint Strategy of 2014, the two governmental departments often seemed at odds, with HEFCE’s National Collaborative Outreach Programme project contradicting OFFA on a universities role in supporting attainment raising. I would be very interested to hear from teaching colleagues on their thoughts around this. Is a university best placed to support attainment in schools? I think we can support it, but only through effective collaboration with teachers.
1. Greater standardisation across outreach
- The Office for Students will need to develop greater harmonisation across the sector. A uniform progression curriculum across KS1-KS5 would be welcomed.
2. Collaboration is crucial, but a change of focus is needed
- A commitment to impartial information, advice and guidance should remain a key component of widening participation policy, but collaboration between universities should only occur when adding value to existing work.
- The National Collaborative Outreach Programme serves as a good example here, as it begins at the very point that universities become increasingly competitive over schools liaison due to the development of a market system. Therefore, it has been very difficult to implement collaborative practice against a competitive backdrop.
- Future collaborative outreach should take heed of The Sutton Trust and include greater focus on younger students (KS1 to KS3).
- With regards to Access Agreements, a shift away from arbitrary targets will be another requirement of the Office for Students.
3. We do need “a step change”, but it has to be effectively managed to become a reality
- Engagement with deprived communities needs to start earlier and be sustained throughout the lifecycle.
- Fixed term funding is unhelpful and engenders instability to the social mobility agenda, especially when projects come at the wrong stage of the student journey.
I’ve presented this paper at various Higher Education conferences this year; I’d be delighted to speak to teaching colleagues and get your thoughts on this issue too.
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