Widening Participation Matters

Time for a mini-rant about the failure of many universities to make any real attempt to make higher education more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds, especially those from underrepresented social groups.

I found this item on Twitter the other day. It’s from a local newspaper in York, and it was accompanied by an article that applauded the University of York (rightly) for being in the top three Russell Group universities for widening participation.

The list shows all 24 universities in the Russell Group, along with the fraction of their students that come from state schools and the fraction that come from geographical areas where participation in higher education is low; ‘POLAR3’ is the latest iteration of the Participation of Local Areas survey carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

I’m very pleased that my current employer, Cardiff University, leads the Russell Group by this measure, followed by the Universities of Liverpool and York, respectively.

What doesn’t please me is that so many of these institutions have such low participation rates from this group, and also such a small fraction of students who were educated at state schools. Over 90% of the total number of students at UK universities were educated at state schools, but the only Russell Group member to exceed 90% is Queens University, Belfast. However, the school system in Northern Ireland is very different from the rest of the UK, with relatively few private schools, so the situation there is not really comparable.

When tuition fees were increased in 2012, Universities were only allowed the charge the maximum (£9K per annum) if they produced an `Access Agreement‘  outlining measures to be introduced that would `improve access, student success and progression among people from under-represented and disadvantaged groups‘. The evidence of the last five years is that participation rates at many of the Russell Group institutions listed above have not changed at all. The reason for this is simple: the members of senior management at these institutions simply do not careabout widening participation.

I emphasize that it’s the members of senior management who don’t care because I honestly believe that the majority of academic staff in these institutions (and indeed the rest of the higher education sector) do care a very great deal. Nowadays however the gulf between academics and managers is greater than ever

Some time ago I was interviewed for a job in senior management at one of the institutions in the table above. During the course of the interview I was asked, among many other things, what I thought the University needed to do better. Without hesitation I said `widening participation’. The members of the panel stared at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. The institution concerned was doing in well in league tables and recruiting students and saw no reason to try to make itself more open. When asked why I thought it was so important, I said I thought it was a moral responsibility. What I meant was that I think universities should be run for the public good, not just for the good of people who went to a posh school. That received even more uncomprehending stares than my original statement.

I didn’t get that job. I’m not saying it was because of the way I answered that question. I’m sure there were plenty of other reasons not to employ me, but that is the part of the interview I remember most vividly. I had prepared a list of ideas (including foundation programmes, measures to boost graduate employability, work placements, schools liaison, etc), some of which I’d borrowed from my (then) employer, the University of Sussex (which was – and is – very good at widening participation), but I had wasted my time. They weren’t interested.

The current system of ‘Access Agreements’ clearly isn’t working for these institutions and there is no effective sanction to force them even to try to broaden participation. Until there is, they will continue not to care.

Parliament has recently enacted the Higher Education and Research Act (2017). This presented a great chance to tackle the failures described above but, as far as I can see, none of the new arrangements is likely to do anything to widen participation in the so-called `elite’ universities, so it’s been a wasted opportunity.





3 Responses to “Widening Participation Matters”

  1. I think the only hope is if academics quit their jobs to take up posts at universities elsewhere which don’t charge fees, and clearly and loudly state publicly that this is the reason for their departure.

  2. “I emphasize that it’s the members of senior management who don’t care because I honestly believe that the majority of academic staff in these institutions (and indeed the rest of the higher education sector) do care a very great deal.”

    Maybe the majority, but not all. I remember a conversation with a senior UK academic who praised fees, saying that running the university “like a business” with students as “customers” had improved things.

    Knowing his background, he would not be in academia at all if there were fees back when he was a student. 😐

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