What’s wrong with Widening Participation policy (for Black and Minority Ethnic students) in England?

By Dominik Jackson-Cole

Widening Participation (WP) to higher education (HE) has been a discrete policy of successive British governments since 1997. Two major motivations for it have been social justice discourses and economic drivers (HEFCE, n.d.). Despite being a socially useful policy its implementation for the last 20 years has had mixed results.

According to UCAS (2016) data the percentage of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds in undergraduate education has increased by 74% between 2006 and 2016. This sounds impressive until we realise that this only represents an actual 5.8 percentage point increase, which is not much different than for the most affluent learners – 5.1 percentage points. When looking at high tariff institutions the access rate of the least advantaged students only increased by 0.8 percentage point in the same time period, compared to 1.1 percentage point for the most affluent – thus furthering the gap between the two groups.  Additionally, BME students are less likely to enter elite universities than their equally qualified White counterparts (Noden, et al., 2014).

In this short post I will attempt to summarise what I believe are the key issues with the way WP is conceptualised and operationalised right now, which makes it mostly ineffective.  (1) WP policy can be categorised as non-transformative, i.e. working within the existing educational paradigm rather than changing it (Minter, 2001; Gillborn, 2006). Most of its offer comes in a form of interventions that act as add-ons to school days, rather than changing how schooling is organised. (2) WP has a disjointed approach, focused on getting students to university (and often acting as additional post-16 recruitment) but not providing a supportive environment once they are there (Burke, 2012; Reay and Crozier, 2010). Although this is slowly changing, most WP practitioners still have very little to do with students, who are left to look at other services for support. This means that an important part of WP practitioners’ knowledge gets lost (Jackson-Cole, 2012). (3) WP is entrenched in deficit discourses, whereby the student is seen as problematic and needing help (Boynton et al., 2004; Youdell, 2003). (4) Most WP policy focuses on undergraduate (UG) issues, while ignoring postgraduate study (Morgan, 2015). This stems from an assumption that access to UG study will even out the level playing field. (5) This also highlights another issue, namely that the genuineness of HEIs’ efforts (not to be confused with that of WP practitioners) in terms of WP can be questioned as issues of access, achievement and progression are primarily looked at where there is governmental funding (i.e. at UG level). (6) And finally, WP policy privileging issues of social-class at the expense of ‘race’ (Boliver, 2011; Callender and Jackson, 2008; Reay and Crozier, 2010; Stahl, 2012). Side-lining questions of ‘race’ and racism results in widening a divide between mostly White WP practitioners and academics who have little access to this knowledge and mostly BME academics of ‘race’ and racism who are concerned with the issues.

Therefore, for the WP policy to be effective it requires an overhaul, whereby it is genuinely concerned with the entire student life cycle working with respective institutions to change  from entry to primary education all the way to postgraduate results. WP needs to step away from the student deficit model and instead adopt an institutional deficit approach, along with a student success model, thus putting the onus of change on institutions not individuals. Issues of ‘race’ and racism need to be incorporated and brought to the forefront of the policy in order to avoid it working for some rather than all.

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