A systemic study into the problem space of widening participation in UK Higher Education

  • Lynn Day

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    In this inquiry, I conduct a systemic study into the wide problem space of Widening Participation in UK Higher Education, an initiative introduced in 1998 to promote positive discrimination for HE participation by young, socially disadvantaged individuals. In addition to redressing social justice, positive outcomes from the policy were expected to contribute to reducing high levels of social deprivation and increasing national competitiveness. It was, therefore, intertwined with other social and economic policy arenas but, by 2009, the Government admitted that rates of widened participation had failed to reach the levels expected.

    The majority of current research into possible reasons why fewer socially disadvantaged young people took advantage of the Widening Participation to participate in Higher Education have tended to engage participating students from target groups as though the findings from this group could be representative of those who do not participate. This neglect of targeted HE non-participants is seen to create a major lacuna in understanding of the reason why the Widening Participation policy failed to achieve its ambitions. Existing research has also tended to concentrate on implementation of the Widening Participation initiative, focusing on the narrow confines of the HE sector without considering interrelated policy arenas. I address these two major lacunae by conducting a systemic study into the wider problem space of Widening Participation and interrelated policy arenas, engaging HE non-participants from target groups in practical inquiry.

    This study represents a major contribution to what is known about possible explanatory factors for the perceived lack of HE participation by young socially disadvantaged individuals as encouraged by the Widening Participation policy. The major finding from this study is that, rather than make a decision to not participate in HE, the majority of research members did not consider HE participation as worthy of notice, much less a subject for active decision-making. Underlying reasons for this varied greatly depending upon how members had been affected by multiple indices of social deprivation. For those who had not been negatively affected, HE participation was a ‘non-decision’ because they were content with their situations, had different ambitions and moved into available employment. They did, however, appear to limit their educational outcomes according to the limited employment opportunities available in their socially deprived environment. For those who were severely affected, the ‘non-decision’ of HE was subsumed under their ambitions to change their circumstances to be more tolerable and reduce the effects of social deprivation. Finally, a small minority who did wish to participate in HE were prevented from doing so by the poor financial circumstances of their families, a ‘barrier’ which was not considered in studies engaging WP students and therefore not addressed.

    The major contribution to the discipline of “policy-making” from this systemic study is that both systems and ethical thinking are required to ensure the future success of the Widening Participation policy. Holistic policy development should be allied with a move from paternalistic government to gaining an understanding of the cultural situations, values and norms of the socially excluded. Social intervention, a redistribution of resources to reduce multiple indices of social deprivation and regeneration of deprived areas to provide greater employment opportunity to increase educational outcomes should be encouraged. The implication for the future progress of Widening Participation under the Coalition Government and changes introduced in 2010 suggest that blanket measures to encourage young, socially disadvantaged individuals to participate in HE are ineffective. I therefore recommend a targeted approach based on evidence which answers the question “Is Widening Participation in Higher Education important and to whom?” Further research will clearly be needed in order to answer this.
    Date of AwardSept 2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorChristine Welch (Supervisor) & Frank Stowell (Supervisor)

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