What is "WP"?

What is Widening Participation &

Why should we care?

Thoughts for a podcast

July 2020

A colleague at Nottingham, Charlie Davis asked Holly Henderson and myself from the School of Education to discuss what widening participation was, its relevance to new academics, and our research interests. In preparation for the podcast I made a few notes - here they are!

WHAT is "WP"?

Widening participation or widening access is a set of policy and practice initiatives relating to who gets to go to, and to which university. Access to higher education is highly stratified by student background, with those from better-off socio-economic backgrounds being more likely to go to university AND attending institutions and degree programmes, that are considered more prestigious (and mean higher economic returns).

WHY is it important?

The concern around university access, often expressed as the desire for greater social mobility, tends to be underpinned from a human capital, essentially economic argument: we need to educate a broader section of society so that they can then contribute more taxes through higher wages. More importantly, and why we all should care about widening participation is the wider social benefits of a highly educated society (better health, higher levels of democratic participation), and the moral argument for fairness. Widening access (generally referred to in Scotland and Wales) or participation (in England) has been chiefly concerned with initiatives to support under-represented groups into university, with some programmes focusing on highly ranked institutions.

WHO is in FOCUS?

The definition of who is considered under-represented, non-traditional, disadvantaged, or a widening participation student varies over time, partly dependent on the institutional context – think differences in university mission, and subject area.

There are numerous characteristics that have been used to define who WP practices target. Some are related to the students’ demographic characteristics, such as gender (think women in STEM), race and ethnicity, age (mature students are students who enter at the age of 21 or above), or with a disability. Other definitions used relate to the socio-economic context the students grew up in, such as: being first in the family to go to university; parents being from a particular social class; having a low household income; receiving free school meals; being from a state school; living in a low HE participation neighbourhood (called a HESA POLAR measure); or being care experienced or estranged.

List of characteristics used to define who WP initiatives target
List of characteristics that are used as widening participation indicators: gender, ethnicity, age, disability, NS-SEC, Equivalent qualifications, state school, first in family, free school meal, household income, care leaver, estranged student, IMD, HESA POLAR measure


However, it is crucial to remember that these categories are generally meaningless for the students: they are specialist definitions used in a very particular context. Furthermore, students don’t necessarily expect to be ‘different’, but very often university is one of the first spaces they will be surrounded by a very different set of people...

HOW? Policy context, stakeholders, and change in focus

WP researchers and practitioners tend to throw around several abbreviations that characterise the policy context, mostly starting with Aim Higher, and most recently being NCOPs (National Collaborative Outreach Partnerships). These programmes stem from the concern that the tuition fees introduced in 2006 in England and Wales could impede social mobility, and focus on outreach between universities, schools and colleges. Between 2004 and 2018 this work has been coordinated by the now defunct Office for Fair Access, which mandated institutions to set up their own Access and Participation Plans (APPs, e.g. Nottingham’s plan) – these have to set out how they will meet their targets to recruit and retain more WP students. From 2018 this role has been taken up by the Office for Students, with a lot of emphasis on effective practice and showing value for money in the WP work through evaluation of activities.

A key way of reaching these aims is via outreach work, aimed at certain groups of students, informing them about university entry and progression, providing taster days and mentoring to them, with some initiatives also adding tutoring. For example, the University of Nottingham offers sustained programmes for 2 years for post-16 students. Importantly, WP initiatives recognise that under-represented students are likely to have achieved lower school outcomes, and the grades do not represent their potential, hence contextualising admissions criteria for them, essentially dropping some of the grade requirements.

However, the policy focus shifted from university entry to the whole student lifecycle, looking at student success, retention, and progression. It's better to think about widening participation AND student success. Initiatives to support these aims include financial support for students, career and enrichment opportunities provided to the target group, and specific interventions supporting academic success and career progression.

Further, concerns around the awarding gap have been on the agenda across higher education, the fact that black and minority ethnic students entering our institutions are less likely to be awarded a First or a 2:1 at the end of their degree, regardless of their initial qualification that they arrived to university with.

WHY does this matter to academics? What can you do?

Beyond the obvious moral element of supporting all our students to achieve their potential, you will need to aid students with information too, relating to financial support, academic support, careers opportunities.

  • Supporting transitions: it is important not to make assumptions about what students know and have. This relates to university level learning and teaching, terminology, and expectations, but also material conditions;

  • Belonging: transitions are multi-faceted, beyond the academic issues students grapple with the social elements and belonging in the university space;

  • Scaffolding learning throughout is key: this isn’t just a first year issue, there is clear evidence that students very often experience a first year to second year ‘jump’ in expectations;

  • Personable personal tutoring and academic advising is key to both catching serious issues early, and providing a friendly point of contact in what is often seen as a giant and an alienating machine;

  • Orientation towards the future: support and advice around the next steps really matters; encouragement with a potential PG application, suggestion on a not very obvious career path, and a general reassurance go a very long way.