What is Widening Participation?

Chapter 1 of Inclusive Practices, Inclusive pedagogies: Learning from Widening Participation in Art and Design Higher Education by Bhagat and O’Neil (2011) has illustrated that this area is deeply complex. WP has emerged to address longstanding issues that are cultural, social and politically embedded realities, these require a radical critique to shift the perpetuating and engrained habits of exclusivity that is prevalent in HE.

The definition of ‘widening participation’ has be been perceived to imply difference and ‘otherness’ which Bhagat and O’Neil question by repositioning it’s meaning to suggest a fully inclusive approach, urging a critical reappraisal of what WP means in all institutions and in ones own teaching practice.

Socio-economic class has been traditionally viewed as the primary focus of WP, increasing lower socio-economic groups’ access to and success in HE. Bhagat and O’Neil, however, assert that many other barriers exist that limit access and success in HE these include age, disability, gender, race, sexuality as well as socio-economic class. It is the transition from exclusivity to inclusivity that is the core of WP.

“We must make certain that the opportunities higher education brings are available to all those who have the potential to benefit from them, regardless of their background…” DFES, 2003, p.67

This quote from the previous governments 2003 White Paper is reassuring yet idealistic, it seems that the powers that be recognise (or recognised) that the WP agenda needs addressing, however, have the sentiments in the quote been realised 10 years later? Change is a slow and complex process. Bhagat and O’Neil explore whom WP refers to finding that in the UK we’re focused on social class whereas the US focuses on race and ethnicity. They suggest that the UK ‘colour-blind’ approach actually avoids the issue; by ignoring it, it does not exist. If the constructs and realities WP wishes to change, institutions need to tackle these issues head-on; it becomes apparent that difficult truths / realities need to be openly addressed and discussed. One ‘awkward’ truth / reality mentioned is that ‘university faculty staff remain predominantly white’, which is an uncomfortable fact.

Within my experience of teaching, cohorts have come from many different nationalities, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds. One issue that I have encountered is that teaching staff are never made aware who is WP, which I appreciate illustrates the ‘otherness’ Bhagat and O’Neil refer too, however, WP students are apparently entitled to an additional 1hr tutorial, if that is the case is that only again reinforcing that ‘otherness’ implying that WP students do require an additional tutorial? If I am honest I feel that all students would benefit from an additional 1hr tutorial! I found this issue echoed in Stephen Gorard’s observation that universities attract but do not cater for WP students.

I have found reading this chapter to be both insightful and unsettling; in the sense that it is apparent that injustices and inequalities permeate throughout education and consequently all cultural, social and political institutions. The instruction Bhagat and O’Neil prompt: “…we reconceptualise education as inherently participator and work toward a socially-integrative HE that reflects and speaks to all of British society” is something that I feel is extremely necessary in light of the landscape they paint and something that I would like to assist in realising.

1 comment

  1. This was a very compelling viewpoint of WP, bringing forward some of the positive and (not so positive) aspects of WP in the context of Higher Education. I strongly agree that the Government’s WHite Paper, 2003, was idealistic to say the least and that such complexities of broadening access and diversity has become a long process.

    It is encouraging however to see The University of the Arts London’s Equality and Diversity Framework 2010-2015 outlines strategies and current progress and objectives. Within the framework, nine schemes currently operate, informing on policy, profile progress and priorities according to; Age, Caring Responsibilities, Disability, Gender, Race, Religion and Belief, Sexual Orientation, Socio-Economic Class, and Transgender.

    I was also very interested in your viewpoint towards provision of tutorials for WP and that extra tutorial time only reinforces the ‘otherness’. I agree with your notion that all students could benefit from additional tutorials and that it mustn’t be deemed a prescriptive solution to addressing a ‘social or academic’ condition.

    I have also taken an interest in what happens beyond access for WP. Chapter 7 of ‘Inclusive Practice…” throws some light on the issue of potential barriers after admissions including academic writing. It’s slightly disturbing that, ‘[Academic writing] may also play a ‘policing’ role in admissions, helping to keep out so-called non-traditional students. If this is one of the ‘thresholds’, it begs the question, at what stage are WP students expected if ever to acquire these skills.

    Overall, I found your blog very interesting and called on me to revisit some of my reading and references.

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