Diversity & Inclusion 2: ‘Widening participation’ in practice

Diversity & Inclusion

The process of encouraging degree applications from students from families new to Higher Education is often referred to as ‘Widening Participation’, abbreviated sometimes to ‘WP’. WP activities have important parts to play at all stages in the student ‘cycle’: from the initial moments of decision or indecision before the filling-out of a UCAS form through the ups and downs of a degree programme to the climax or anti-climax of graduation and the search for employment. Many and varied examples of initiatives in this area appear in the Good Practice Guide published by the Subject Centre in 2003. Activities in and with local communities, as discussed in this website’s Community Engagement area, can also play a part in the WP agenda.

Many departments run ‘outreach’ activities such as ‘taster days’ (enabling prospective students to meet existing students, explore the campus and attend a lecture), summer schools (giving young people the opportunity to experience HE at length), open days, school visits and mentoring programmes, often in association with other nearby HE institutions. Work such as this inevitably has a double focus, looking to raise aspirations generally as well as to increase applications to specific institutions. The Subject Centre has produced a website, ‘Why Study English?’, designed for use in outreach. Perhaps the most vital element at this, pre-application, stage is the dispelling of myths—the sharing of nitty-gritty information about what HE (and the study of English at degree level) involves: details about courses, facilities, timetabling, expectations, the nature of university or college study, sources of financial support and so on. Misconceptions about the nature of English degrees (for example, about the employability of English graduates) abound, and we can do much to combat them.

‘One of the students interviewed commented that if she had known before she arrived in HE how well her department catered for mature students with children she would have applied for a place much more readily.’

Source: Good Practice Guide (2003), p. 6.

The 2003White Paper’s laudable aspiration to ‘to make sure that potential is recognised and fostered wherever it is found’ provides a challenge for departmental Admissions officers. English lecturers are probably more aware than most of the differences between raw marks, UCAS form statements and genuine ‘potential’—and of all the problems that such distinctions can bring, as the balance between demand (applications) and supply (places) is assessed. At the same time, the Admissions process needs to be comprehensible to candidates and their families. Some departments provide a special telephone advice line. A flexible approach to non-standard qualifications and work experience is another important way of responding to the WP agenda. The complex issues involved were discussed in detail in the 2004 Schwartz report.

Maintaining very clear channels of communication continues to be important once students from under-represented groups arrive at university, and, of course, this is something that pays dividends for all students—not just (say) OAPs and people with mobility problems. Increasingly, lecturers are recognising the difficulty for many young people of the transition from school to university and becoming aware of the need to work harder to induct all new undergraduates (not just ‘WP students’) into the details of academic life: work patterns, teaching methods, assessment types, writing skills and so on. We can’t assume, for example, that new undergraduates will know exactly what a ‘lecture’ or a ‘seminar’ is. Some striking divergences between the approaches to the teaching of literature at school and in HE are highlighted in the 2005 English Subject Centre report by Andrew Green, Four Perspectives on Transition, a topic picked up on by David Ellis’s report on the first-year experience of English, In at the Deep End (2008). Some new undergraduates will view academic life as an alien culture, a way of living that has been designed for other people, not them.

Once at university, ‘WP students’, research has shown, tend to require a particularly high level of support if they are to complete their degrees successfully. Many adjustments can be made: alterations to course length and structure, the institution of more flexible timetabling and assessment arrangements (sensitive to the needs, for example, of students with childcare responsibilities), new types of bursary, a shift to greater variety in teaching and assessment methods, the establishment of more comprehensive mechanisms for students to air their concerns, sensitivity to students’ religious principles, and so on. The process of making these adjustments is not always easy: use of ICT in the curriculum, for example, can cut both ways—helping some students whilst disadvantaging others. A few basic changes to teaching arrangements, however, can work wonders for ALL students. This ‘inclusive’ approach to teaching is at the heart of the English Subject Centre’s report on the experience of disabled students, Staying the Course and of its most recent publication in this area, a ‘seed guide’ on Inclusive Teaching.

It is frequently the case that WP students require more guidance than other students when the search for jobs begins. They may not be aware of the variety of job opportunities available and unfamiliar with job application processes. As some employers require particular GCSEs or ‘A’-levels as well as a degree, students with non-standard secondary qualifications can face particular problems. For more information on graduate employment and the employability of English graduates, see our employability pages.