Chris Bayes (firstname.lastname@example.org), Matthew Johnson (email@example.com) and Guillermo Alonso (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Keywords: Widening Participation; Higher Education; Politics and International Relations; Disadvantage; Recruitment
Abstract: How should we develop genuinely transformative Widening Participation (WP) interventions of benefit to those who might need them most? The need for practitioners to consider the importance of this question is highlighted by the development of WP in the UK against a backdrop of marketisation and rising inequality. In this article, we map this context in order to demonstrate an alternative pathway to WP. We do this through consideration of a WP programme in Politics and International Relations (PIR) at Lancaster University, using a new means of recruitment for the flagship summer school, New Political Minds, to demonstrate genuine potential for interventions capable of transforming not just approaches to Higher Education (HE) but young people’s analyses of their own circumstances.
How should we develop genuinely transformative Widening Participation (WP) interventions of benefit to those who might need them most? The need for practitioners to consider the importance of this question is highlighted by the development of WP in the UK against a backdrop of marketisation and rising inequality. This particular context has produced a unique, and often troubling, elision of the concepts of outreach and WP and their subsumption by recruitment, creating opportunities for game playing both by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and by parents who find means of their children meeting WP criteria even though they are otherwise comfortable economically and replete with social and cultural capital. Understanding this grants capacity to identify both integral parameters within which to develop programmes and to find means of engaging groups effectively. In what follows, we trace this literature, before outlining the nature of a programme, New Political Minds, that advances a subject-area grounded, campus-based, experience- and skills-honing approach to WP, and detailing a unique means of identifying and engaging groups that are genuinely excluded from HE. We begin by tracing the literature on the historical development of WP.
While ‘Widening Participation’ as a term gained prominence in the UK from the 1990s onwards, the concept of widening access HE to stimulate economic growth had already long been engrained within governmental policy. The Robbins Report (1963) recommended an expansion of the sector to bring ‘with it a very extensive transformation of the social and economic picture’ (Committee on Higher Education, 1963: 8). At the heart of the report was recognition that HE places ‘should be available to all who were qualified for them by ability and attainment’ (Committee on Higher Education, 1963:70). The wider consequence of The Robbins Report was a substantial increase in student numbers from 197,000 in 1967-68 to 217,000 by 1973/74. The next major increase in student numbers came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with Kenneth Baker, Conservative Secretary of State for Education, overseeing a rapid rise of 30% between 1988 and 1992 (Bathmaker, 2003: 178), which marked the The Further and Higher Education Act (1992) that granted university status to former polytechnics. This shifted ‘the British higher education system… from… an elite to a mass system’ (Bathmaker, 2003: 179).
Interestingly, this shift coincided with the emergence of Student Recruitment (SR) as a means of widening access to fill places. This, of course, had profound implications for structure, quality and particularly funding of HE. To accommodate the expansion, The Dearing Report on Higher Education (1997) advocated a shift to tuition fees, supported by low interest government loans, an approach initially rejected, but ultimately adopted, by the New Labour Government which, eventually, came to support the expansion of HE participation to 50% of Britain’s youth (HEFCE, 2001). As part of New Labour’s commitment to social mobility, and as a means of counteracting concern on the effect of fees on equality of opportunity, WP was formalised through programmes such as Aimhigher, a nationwide outreach project supported by Lifelong Learning Networks (LLNs).
The most profound intervention in terms of marketisation and WP came following the 2010 General Election. The Coalition Government, following the Browne report (BIS/10/1208), introduced wholesale changes that exaggerated both the potential for inequality via a trebling of fees and the need for WP to maintain the veneer of equity in access. The Coalition elected to end Central Government funding for Aimhigher and to shift responsibility for WP to individual universities through the introduction of Access Agreements, which required that universities charging over £6,000 a year were required to commit to reinvesting 1/3 of the top up on WP. The Government succeeded in the development of ‘students as consumers’ and ‘shifting the cost of university from the state to the individual’ (Benson-Egglenton, 2018; 1). However, these changes did not create the tiered market place anticipated (see Willets 2010), as ‘many universities chose to set their fees at the maximum of £9,000, not because of any real cost calculation, but because they feared that anything cut-price would be seen as low quality and that they might lose market share or damage their brand, or both’ (Barber, Donnelly, Rizvi – 2013: 14).
For WP and SR staff, the Coalition’s policies ushered in a confusing new era in which austerity clashed with ideology to implement a market-based system in which students were increasingly viewed as consumers. These changes linked recruitment and widening access more directly than previously, but did not take into account the diversity of ways SR and WP teams worked together across the sector (see Johnson and Mutton 2018). It was against this backdrop that OFFA and HEFCE produced a joint strategy, which advocated ‘Greater collaboration and partnership at every level’ and ‘A student lifecycle approach’ which would support both access and retention (BIS 14/516)
Equality of cost, inequality of value
While costs are fairly consistent across the sector, McCaig (2018a: 52-54) argues that the current system is characterised by persistence in the distinction between the HEIs that have taken up the bulk of expansion in access (the post-1992 universities) and those that remain conceived as elite (the pre-1992 universities). The differences in perception have actively been exaggerated precisely because the ‘market’ context has permitted opportunity for elite institutions to develop and deploy brands effectively (McCaig, 2018b:75-76). The consequence has been the concentration of students from lower social groups in less prestigious and less affluent, universities. Harrison and Waller (2017: 6) suggest that the dominance of certain social groups in the top of the university hierarchy is reflected in the WP objectives and activities of both the elite sector and the mass system. For the former, WP is reduced to ‘a mission to “reallocate” participation rather than to widen it’ by capturing a larger share of high-attaining students. Rainford (2017:48) deems this to be a result of the universities’ need to maintain their prestige, and therefore their place, within the hierarchy of quality.
This conforms to the notion of meritocratic social mobility, but does not necessarily actively challenge inequity in access. In part, this is because responsibility for widening access falls centrally upon lower prestige institutions (Harrison and Waller, 2017; McCaig, 2016:219), with WP increasingly elided with SR for those HEIs struggling for financial survival (Bowl and Hughes, 2016: 269; McCaig, 2016:228). McCaig (2016) provides data on how ‘a flight to quality’ is shifting traditional WP’s focus on widening access to a focus on capturing a larger share of those students deemed brightest (McCaig, 2016:227). This has contributed to a ‘distortion of institutional spending’, with a reduction in budgets for engagement with those from disadvantaged backgrounds compensated by an increase in focus on those whose school performance merits it (McCaig, 2016:227).
This can only make sense conceptually in terms of social mobility if the broader socio-economic circumstances that impede mobility are excluded entirely from calculations. The establishment of multiple criteria for entry in ‘elite’ universities limits access to HE for many disadvantaged groups that may not have the prior supportive environment and resources to access them (Rainford, 2017:48). Put simply, in a market context, the need of elite institutions ‘for self-reproduction in order to maintain their legitimacy is often at odds with calls for increased access and inclusion” (Rainford, 2017:48) since it depends upon determining admission according to ‘previous academic achievement, geographical location and ability to afford the hidden costs of participation’ (Rainford, 2017:49). This is the logical consequence of muddled ‘recent government strategy’ of attempting ‘to widen participation at the same time as increasing total student numbers’ within a market (McLellan et al., 2016: 57). McLellan et al. talk of a ‘risk’ that ‘outreach and widening participation initiatives function mostly as an exercise in meeting statutory requirements or in public relations’, the reality is that, at best, only a slight widening of participation is achieved across the sector (McLellan et al, 2016: 60), with the bulk of widened access falling into the lower end institutions and the elite entrenched and reproduced at the upper end. While research on SR strategies has been scarce in a European context (Frolich et al., 2009: 273), McCaig (2018b:79) is surely right, therefore, to regard WP and social justice as ‘marketable commodities’, subordinated to the wider aim of student recruitment.
The rise of instrumentalism and the student-as-consumer
Although it is important to understand how the policy context has influenced the practice of WP, for the purposes at hand it is also necessary to underline that these policies have had also impacted other elements of the HE environment. To put it in market terms, both the supply side (HEIs) and the demand side (the students themselves) have been affected. The literature points to the rise of ‘instrumentalism’ among students, with a rise in motivation to attend university on the basis of ‘pursuit of economically advantageous outcomes, often at the expense of more intrinsically educational ones’ (Tomlinson, 2017:453). While HEIs have shown little differentiation in tuition fees, students themselves have increasingly expressed concern for value for money (Tomlinson, 2017:456-457). Indeed, understanding instrumentalism enables us to understand the stark contradiction between mobility and the market. Research indicates the main factors dissuading young people from disadvantaged backgrounds from pursuing HE include the desire to earn money, the feeling that people from their social circumstances do not usually go to university (Bekhradnia 2003). Amongst white working-class boys in particular, there is often an underlying belief in their inability to access a good enough university to produce an adequate return on their investment (Baars, et al. 2016:13-14).
The fact that young people from certain backgrounds deem HE an uncertain or poor means of producing economic returns need not, in the abstract, be problematic: there is no objective reason for HE monopolising entry to well-paying jobs, since there are many jobs that do not require academic study. However, the fact that HE is now being assessed instrumentally, with some evidence of inelasticity with regard to price (Bekhradnia, 2003), presents the sector with a series of concerns that can only lead to an entrenchment of inequality and diminution of WP as a social agenda. This is apparent in the ways in which a ‘student-as-consumer’ attitude feeds into pedagogy. McCaig (2018b:82-84) illustrates the ways in which universities, in response to league tables determined in part by graduate prospects, have shifted their focus toward enhancing employability. Tomlinson (2017:454) is surely right to argue that there is a possibility of perpetual diminution of traditional academic commitments as a consequence: while more prestigious institutions are able to maintain their traditional pedagogical commitments by virtue of the ways in which employers recognise the qualifications they confer, lower prestige institutions that absorb the greatest numbers of students from non-traditional academic backgrounds are ever increasingly forced to adopt non-traditional, non-‘academic’ pedagogies to demonstrate ‘employability’ which may, in fact, correspond to ‘transient levels of gratification’ rather than enduring academic quality (Tomlinson, 2017:454). Given the radically inegalitarian society within which individuals operate, it is difficult to imagine employers regarding those candidates with ‘employability’ experience in the same category as those from elite institutions. The consequence is that the two-tiered system replicates and enhances inequality and produces radically divergent graduates with radically divergent outcomes as a consequence.
Advancing alternative approaches to WP
Criticism of WP policy and practice is not new. Widening participation under the New Labour governments from 1997-2010 was characterised by “rhetorical advocacy, some achievement but essentially modest progress’ (Taylor, 2009:74). It has been highlighted that research around WP often replicates ‘the mistakes of the past, since there has been a collective act of forgetfulness with respect to earlier contributions’ (Kettley, 2007: 333). From experience, this is not confined to research as many of the lessons learned from the Aimhigher programme were seemingly forgotten during the development of HEFCE’s NNCO (National Networks for Collaborative Outreach) and NCOP (National Collaborative Outreach Programme) projects. The impact of Access Agreements has been particularly problematic, since universities tend ‘to be risk-averse focusing energy on low-risk projects that are likely to produce a modest return, rather than embracing more high-risk and innovative, though untested projects that have the potential to be more broadly transformative’ (McLellan et al, 2016: 66). In particular, Harrison and Waller (2017: 14) highlight the difficulty in targeting ‘the “right” young people’, since ‘deadweight’ approaches engage with those who already intend to study while ‘leakage’ problems entrench support for advantaged, rather than disadvantaged, groups (Harrison and Waller, 2017). These difficulties are exaggerated by epistemological deficits that negate the possibility of robust evaluations of success, the schools’ own agendas promoting engagement with successful students, and the tension between low attainment and high aspirations in disadvantaged young people. Indeed, Harrison and Waller (2018) are surely right to criticise the overreliance of HE discourses on aspiration, given both that there appears to be no clear link between aspiration and attainment (Harrison and Waller 2018:920-921) and that, in a market context, there may be many different non-HE options, such as skilled trades, which offer prospects for more affluent lives than HE. They persuasively propose that WP shifts toward expectations by adopting policy that ‘addresses inequalities earlier in [young people’s] lives, engages with the adults surrounding young people, provides advice when it is needed and does not perpetuate the classed myth of low aspirations’ (Harrison and Waller, 2018:934). Indeed, even then, there are good reasons for HEIs to broaden admissions processes to include post-qualification assessment, given the over-reliance on A levels that ‘do not tell the whole story’ (Bekhradnia, 2003).
All of this suggests, as McLellan et al. (2016: 63) argue, that ‘widening participation as process [is] not equal to the task’ and that HEIs must adopt a model much more closely aligned with pedagogy. This requires that we abandon ‘the idea that it is some other part of the educational system that is responsible for low participation in the elite institutions – the schools, the applicants, or the families and social backgrounds of the applicants’ (McLellan et al, 2016: 63). In contrast, HEIs must conceive of ‘WP as pedagogy’, since this suggests that HEIs, in particular, have the capacity to utilise the very conditions that make certain groups underrepresented to widen access:
[A]s people with mixed experiences of education, the students often brought a critical perspective to our discussions, and were quicker to challenge academic authority when it did not match with their experiences. Discussions felt less predictable, leading us to question and adapt our usual teaching styles. (McLellan et al, 2016:65)
This radical pedagogy, with its grounding in the work of Freire (1974) and others, recognises that the university itself need to ‘create new forms of dialogue, knowledge and collaboration […] to impact positively on the university’s fundamental purpose and aims’ (McLellan et al, 2016: 70).
For Whitchurch, this depends upon ‘the emergence of hybrid multi-professionals, who […] work across boundaries and contribute to the formation of new fields of knowledge’ (Whitchurch, 2006: 159). The work of practitioners informed substantively by critical pedagogical theory represents development of a ‘skill and knowledge base for professional staff [which] now characterise[s] universities’ operations in local, regional and global settings’ (Whitchurch, 2006: 163). For Barber, Donnelly and Rizvi (2013: 27), this ‘professionalism of university administration […] is one of the unsung but important developments of the post-war decades’, while, for Rainford (2017:45), the move towards the ‘student lifecycle’ integrating good practice elements across departments is part of a wider move towards a fully integrated university professional service.
As Johnson and Mutton (2018) and Johnson, et al. (2019: 8) argue, however, the problem is that WP and SR staff often have wholly contrasting agendas and working conditions to academic staff. While the former may be assessed according to their contribution to recruitment overall, the latter are assessed by the student numbers on their particular courses. Moreover, and as a consequence, engagement in outreach is often divided between non-subject specific work among the former and subject-specific work among the latter. This is a critical distinction since there are no non-subject-specific degrees at university and little teaching, at better institutions, by non-academic staff. If young people are to understand the experience of HE, it is odd that their engagement with HEIs is through non-academics with little experience of life as academics. The overwhelming danger of non-academic outreach, though, is that it actually entrenches instrumentalism, since concern for expectation and non-subject-specific value of HE is central to instrumental evaluation of the sector. As a consequence, the marginalisation of academics and the assessment of WP programmes by non-academics represents one of the most troubling deficits in work in the field. What, then, might a subject-specific form of WP work look like?
The challenge of Politics and New Political Minds
For much of the past two decades, it has been a struggle to convince young people of the importance and value of politics. During the Blair years, in particular, there was an assumption that politics consisted of technocratic disagreement over administration of the neoliberal economy. As a consequence, explaining the relevance of politics to young people often depended upon ever more creative and expansive analyses of the minutiae of the everyday (see Johnson 2016). However, since the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum in 2016 and the General Election of 2017, there has been genuine belief among young people that political participation can lead to transformative outcomes. This is especially important for radically excluded and alienated communities that benefit most from understanding and engaging with politics in order to resist a range of oppressive political processes and to advance constructive alternatives. As such, while the extent of interest in Politics and International Relations (PIR) has increased in recent years, attempts to engage WP through substantive subject area recruitment developed over the past 5 or so years have met ever more receptive audiences. This is apparent at Lancaster.
New Political Minds (2019) is the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion’s flagship PIR Summer School. It is the final intervention in the Department’s nationwide PIR programme, which seeks to provide 5 points of subject area contact with students from schools identified by the Lancaster University as targets for WP activity (see Johnson 2016; Johnson and Mutton 2018). Interventions range from subject area talks, to mini-modules aimed at the WP (Johnson, Bowden and Alonso 2019) and Prevent agendas (see Johnson, REAP and Mutton 2016b). Now in its 5th year, New Political Minds event seeks to revitalise PIR by bringing together at Lancaster outstandingly talented young people (16 -17 year olds) from WP backgrounds to build towards the future of UK Politics. Successful applicants work with Politics/IR academic staff and the Richardson Institute, the UK’s oldest Peace and Conflict Research Centre, over three days to produce a series of reports on the future of Britain as seen through the eyes of people entering into the world of politics. Students experience Part I style seminars in four key areas: political theory; political economy; political institutions; International Relations. These seminars introduce students to high quality teaching that not only prepares them for life at undergraduate level, but also enhances their ability to excel in related subjects in their final A Level year. The reports produced are filmed, edited and uploaded to YouTube to provide students with a linkable resource to cite on CVs and Personal Statements, upgrading their case for admission in the process. Students stay on campus in Lancaster University’s award winning accommodation and will experience a range of evening activities run by Lancaster University’s Student Ambassadors that introduce students to life on campus. Places at the event are determined by evaluation of completed application forms, with the 32 best entrants invited. All places are reserved for students from Widening Participation (WP) backgrounds.
By attending the New Political Minds summer school, students:
By focusing wholly on WP students, the event seeks to:
As a whole, the event is not just a transformative intervention in terms of academic performance; it aims to equip students with the ability to challenge existing social structures and to advance their interests decisively.
The impact has been significant (Johnson, REAP and Mutton 2016a). Feedback from attendees (see Johnson 2019) indicates:
This transformative impact has contributed to an increase in recruitment to PIR at Lancaster, with students bridging school and university through the event. However, the project has struggled to secure WP funding in the past. The reasons for this have been unclear as evaluations on funding applications for WP funding are conducted in the final instance by non-academics and little feedback is provided on decisions. As such, the event was funded departmentally until 2019, when philanthropic support was provided by the Chancellor, the Rt Honourable Alan Milburn, former Secretary for State for Health and Chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission during the Coalition and Conservative Governments. This has provided a basis for support that enables planning for the future. As part of this, the department has committed to ensuring that places are allocated to those most in need of opportunity. Given the issues of instrumentality noted above and given the difficulty in accessing those most in need of opportunity, a decision has been made to adopt a radically divergent approach to engagement that transcends some of the key obstacles of access, such as deadweight and leakage.
Pathways beyond schools
The appointment of a new Outreach & Student Success (OSS) team within the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) in March 2018 presented an opportunity for a revised approach to the promotion of and the recruitment of participants to New Political Minds. The OSS Manager had worked with Liverpool Schools Parliament (LSP) in previous roles, managing collaborative projects through the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) funded National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) and National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) projects. It is through these programmes that alternative pathways to NPM have been developed.
Liverpool Schools Parliament, which first met in March 2001, ‘was established with the aim of giving children and young people aged seven years and above a “voice” in what takes place in Liverpool, especially on those matters that affect the children and young people of the city’ (School Improvement Liverpool 2018). The project actively engages young people of the city in politics and political decision making, with LSP recognised as an official Committee of Liverpool City Council. Led by Director Jeff Dunn, LSP engages with UK Youth Parliament, European Youth Parliament UK and International Model European Parliament. During the Merseyside Network for Collaborative Outreach (MNCO) project, MNCO developed effective collaboration between LSP and Merseyside universities via the Merseyside Youth Parliament project, replicating the LSP model in schools in other boroughs within the Liverpool City Region (Halton, Knowsley, Sefton, St Helens and Wirral). In the build up to the United Kingdom European Union membership referendum in 2016, MNCO worked with LSP to host a series of Model EU parliament debate events for young people from WP backgrounds across Merseyside.
Given these successful previous collaborations, the OSS team saw LSP as a potential organisation with whom Lancaster could collaborate in order to recruit politically active young people from WP backgrounds independently of schools engagement that might fall into the trap of entrenching existing advantages for successful students. Following a presentation at an LSP event in November 2018, the OSS team made connection with Youth Focus North West (YFNW), another organisation concerned centrally with politically active young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As ‘a strategic hub with youth work values at the heart of every piece of work.’ (Youth Focus North West, 2019), YFNW has a young person-centred approach and commitment to co-production that is rare within WP practice, which often favours ‘off the shelf’ activities providing generic Information, Advice & Guidance (IAG) content to support HE applications from young people.
Given that such generic ‘widening participation as process’ approaches are limited in terms of outcomes (McLellan et al. 2016: 61), and given that NPM is designed to increase subject knowledge and involving substantive pedagogical engagement, we sought actively to work with groups that focus centrally on examining specific issues and affairs of relevance to young people’s lives, such as LSP and YFNW, who ‘believe that working with young people and engaging them in civic life contributes to improving the lives of young people in the North West’ (Youth Focus North West, 2019). Further to the engagement with LSP, the OSS team delivered a presentation to promote New Political Minds at one of YFNW’s ‘Youthforia’ events in Middlewich in January 2019, before hosting another of these events at Lancaster University in March 2019. This event saw 125 young people and their youth workers attend campus, which served to introduce a large number of people from non-traditional academic backgrounds to Higher Education space. The fact that those young people were not from a single school or set of schools ensured that the environment was naturally more diverse and representative of university experience.
Developing a new pathway to New Political Minds
Alongside the focus on partnership, the OSS team have sought to develop a ‘Student Lifecycle’ approach towards WP activity as part of Faculty level Outreach & Student Success Action Plans. At the heart of these plans are ‘Discover FASS’ and ‘Access to FASS’ taster events, which target Y9 pupils (Discover) and Y12 pupils (Access) from WP backgrounds. The events are grounded in such topics as ‘The Government vs. the Free Market’, ‘Identity, Surveillance, and Security in Society’ and ‘The Future of Work and Technology’. These are subject-specific topics of relevance to the lives of young people. They are intended, in the longer-term, to support recruitment of WP students to both New Political Minds and Lancaster University’s Institutional level Access & Success programmes.
Following involvement in the ‘Youthforia’ events, there has been interest from YFNW in co-development of out of school engagement with younger students aged 14 upwards. This engagement will be replicated with programmes of work YFNW’s sister organisation, Youth Focus North East. These programmes will build upon Lancaster’s prior Politics/IR outreach engagements in the region, such as Middle East role plays and Question Time events (see Johnson and Mutton 2018), and support development of political debating activities among WP students in the North. Both of these new schemes of work will serve as avenues to supplement the future pool of applicants to New Political Minds. As Figure 1 illustrates (taken from Bayes, 2019), this constitutes a Politics/IR-specific programme grounded in a ‘Student Lifecycle’ model.
Figure 1: FASS Student Lifecycle model illustrating where PIR engagement fits within this model
Given the overwhelming focus on schools engagement, such an approach represents a radical departure from existing WP work. It has the potential to be much more effective and efficient at reaching genuinely disadvantaged young people with both the potential and interest in studying Politics/IR at university.
WP has radical foundations. However, it has been instituted in such a tightly constrained framework determined by concern for financial viability that its political foundations are often obscured. It is to be expected that, at a time of growing socio-economic inequality and decreasing HE resources, universities should seek to engage in recruitment with a WP tint, rather than WP through recruitment. This, though, does not do justice to the possibilities of WP within the current climate. Working with youth organisations and with young people over a number of years provides means of genuinely creating opportunities for HE among seriously disadvantaged young people. Politics/IR is the ideal discipline around which to shape such engagement precisely because it is fundamentally concerned with justice and uniquely placed to understand disadvantage. It offers young people the ability to understand their own lives and the reasons for obstacles being placed in their paths to lives to which they aspire. It grants people the ability to challenge those obstacles. If Politics/IR departments engage with young people through organisations such as those above and over time in the manner suggested above, there is great potential for change to be effected. Given that the present climate is fundamentally unsustainable, it is essential that universities begin to think of their futures beyond £9,250 fees and beyond neoliberalism. Starting with subject area engagement and giving academics increased responsibility for WP is a good start.
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