Widening participation: looking to the future

Widening participation: looking to the future


Earlier this year, OFFA published research authored by Professor Liz Thomas encouraging universities and colleges to take a ‘whole institution approach’ to widening participation – in other words, embedding it across all areas of work and being actively led and championed by senior management.

OFFA access and participation




“Excellent progress has been made in widening access to higher education for the most disadvantaged young people. But for too long, this progress has only been incremental. We now need to see transformational change.”

   Professor Les Ebdon, Director of Fair Access

 

Learning from what we know

Key to HEFCE’s widening participation strategic assessments guidance and the national strategy for access and student success, as well as a strategic priority in our access agreement guidance, calls for institutions to adopt this approach to widening participation are nothing new.

Publishing this research, at this time, presents a vital opportunity to challenge and support the sector to lead change. Adopting a fully realised whole institution approach is the single biggest thing an institution could do to make change happen in access and participation.

The critical importance of creating an inclusive culture to enable and sustain excellence has been recognised and supported by the Government’s teaching and learning guidance published last year.

Recently, HEFCE published a powerful review of support for disabled students advocating the use of a model of support that involves the whole institution. Universities UK have developed a whole university approach framework to tackle the rise of negative mental health and wellbeing issues facing students and staff. But despite how long we’ve been discussing these issues and how central they have been to higher education policy, there is still considerable progress to be made.

This research provides the timely opportunity for the whole sector, including OFFA and HEFCE, to re-engage with these ideas and reflect upon where we are and how far we still have to go.

What does a whole institution approach look like?

Professor Thomas identified three core features that all institutions should embed:

  • A whole lifecycle approach to widening participation. The strategies and interventions you develop must engage students from early outreach through to successful progression from higher education.
  • Staff from departments, services and units from across the institution are involved in widening participation. This means that everyone – not just those with it in their job title – are actively involved in creating a culture where issues of access and participation thrives. Senior leaders are key to nurturing this culture and building an institutional structure that enables all staff and students to engage. 
  • There is a clear and explicit institutional commitment to widening participation and target groups, expected outcomes and aims are clearly defined. Having this public focus can act as a catalyst for institutional change.

Implementing a whole institution approach takes time and collective effort

Individual champions are an essential first step to maturing an institutional culture. But the story can’t end there. Institutions and those working within them, must build cultures that support pockets of excellence and strive towards working in a structure where all elements of organisational machinery are involved.

As important as leadership is to (re)shaping institutional structures, a whole institutional approach is achieved through a productive interplay between cultural and structural changes. A top-down strategy must be complemented by harnessing and learning from the grassroots commitments and activities of students and staff. And, where appropriate, providing capacity building, professional development or accreditation to celebrate and support practice improvement.

Institutional approaches to widening participation maturity model (Thomas, 2017: 17).

Figure 1: Institutional approaches to widening participation maturity model (Thomas, 2017: 17).


Working towards the future

While we celebrate the hard work to widen participation to higher education of those from the disadvantaged and underrepresented backgrounds, we know that change is still desperately needed and that too many people are missing out on opportunities to thrive.

Publishing this research, at this time, presents a vital opportunity to challenge and support the sector to lead change. Adopting a fully realised whole institution approach is the single biggest thing an institution could do to make change happen in access and participation.

We do not underestimate the challenge of this – particularly when there are such significant changes facing higher education providers in England. But these challenges should not stop us in our tracks but drive us forward by learning from where we’ve come from and reflecting on where we still need to go.

The new legislation and regulatory landscape provides the opportunity for everyone to take stock and to plan new ways of working. For example, the focus on an embedded approach to access and participation and continuous improvement within the regulatory framework consultation, highlights some of the key themes of delivering meaningful change identified in the research. The possibilities of learning from new providers for widening participation presents an exciting learning opportunity for everyone.

As we in OFFA reflect on how far we’ve come, we are really excited about the development of a new regulatory body that weaves issues of access and participation into its very fabric. The Office for Students can provide the strategic, logistical and practical support and challenge on issues of widening participation that we have all been building towards.

More than this, however, in having a statutory remit to actively engage with students, the Office for Students re-shapes what widening participation policy, practice and research could look like – to involve students as co-creators and active agents in transforming higher education in England into a fairer and more equitable environment.

By Richard Shiner, Head of Evidence and Effective Practice, and Alex Wardrop, Evidence and Effective Practice Manager, Office for Fair Access.  

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