30, July, 2014

Widening participation strategies need to do more than nudge those already on route to university

Professor Stephen Gorard, School of Education, Durham University analyses current strategies for widening participation in higher education.

Introduction by EMC Chief Executive, Sue Littlemore 

As the popular talent show says, “Britain`s Got Talent” – pity it wastes it too, many experts conclude.

Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, commented on the Office for Fair Access recent monitoring of how well universities handled access to a higher education for people from groups who don`t tend go to university :

“There have been real improvements in participation in higher education overall as a result of…..efforts. However, the access gap remains significant, particularly for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, with those from the most advantaged fifth of communities over six times more likely to go to a leading university than the least advantaged two-fifths of neighbourhoods.“

In his article below, Professor Stephen Gorard suggests a reason for this persistent gap, “The real difficulty of widening participation is disguised by the lack of robust evaluation.”

OFFA`s Director, Professor Les Ebdon, seems to want to change that. For example, a recent press release, about agreements reached on widening participation for universities wishing to charge higher fees in 2015/16, says,

Analysis previously published by OFFA suggests that, under the old system of fees, the precise amount of bursary awarded by a university or college did not affect a student’s choice of university, nor did it have an observable effect on the likelihood of a student continuing with their course. We have asked institutions to consider this analysis, and their own evidence, to ensure that financial support is carefully targeted and to evaluate the impact of the bursaries they give to students.”

Focusing on attainment in schools rather than on undergraduates or even the level of fees is a key and repeated message from academic experts in widening fair university participation who have commented on the evidence for the Education Media Centre :

Dr. Gill Wyness and Dr. John Jerrim, Institute of Education, University of London:

“Studies show achievement in secondary school is the most important reason why more children from the poorest backgrounds don’t go to university, including selective institutions like Oxford and Cambridge….What is very much more pronounced is the very high rates of participation of children of parents who themselves went to university……Even when university fees were £3,000 per year, family background differences in university access in England were just as big as in the United States where fees are higher.”

Anna Vignoles, Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge:

“Poor students are less likely to go to university largely because they have lower prior achievement at school, rather than because of tuition fees. This does not mean that universities have no role to play. Universities can help schools provide better guidance to their students, provide them with clearer information about financial matters, raise their aspirations and make better subject choices.”

Nicholas Barr, Professor of Public Economics, London School of Economics:

“Widening participation is enormously important, both for social justice and because in today’s world a country cannot afford to waste talent. The evidence is now powerful that the main barrier to participation is not doing well in school. A person with good A levels is highly likely to go to university whatever his or her social background.”

In her response to OFFA`s report on the 2015/16 access agreements, HEFCE’s Chief Executive, Professor Madeleine Atkins, seems to signal both her own commitment to finding and following the evidence and an expectation universities will do the same:

Universities and colleges are undertaking vitally important work to maximise student success. But we need to improve our understanding of what works and what does not, to ensure that HEFCE and sector funding has the greatest possible impact. Much of the focus to date has been on expenditure and on activity, but we need a stronger emphasis on outcomes. In constrained financial times, it is vital to demonstrate that this considerable investment is being used as effectively as possible.”

Widening participation in higher education easily falls into the “something must be done” category of stubborn economic, social and educational problems. What can follow are strategies and policies based on little more than plausible, well meaning hunches on the part of universities and other policy makers about what will make a difference.

Below, Professor Gorard summarises some of his own research and analyses shortcomings in current strategies.

Degrees of freedom? The limitations of widening participation

The notion of widening participation to higher educational opportunities is a good one. It seems intrinsically unfair that currently HE intakes that are disproportionately young, female, and from relatively high socio-economic status backgrounds. The fact that policies, priorities and funding for widening participation in the UK are directed only at the last of these is interesting, and perhaps revealing about the sense of justice that underlies government action in this area. Nevertheless, that last inequality alone is still worth trying to deal with.

Unfortunately, the trajectory for traditional young HE aspirants is usually set earlier in life and embodied in their school-level and immediate post-compulsory qualifications. In general, the vast majority of young people who attain qualifications that would allow them uncomplicated entry to a UK university already go to university. And the vast majority of young people who do not enter university do not have qualifications that would allow them uncomplicated entry to a UK university.

The stratification of HE is predominantly the stratification of prior attainment results. This means there is only a very limited pool of young people genuinely available to be affected by widening participation itself. Information, role models, aspirations, summer programmes and the like cannot do much, if anything, to change that.

At present, and leaving all else unchanged, there seem to be four general ways forward for this issue of young participation in HE. We could accept that prior qualifications are merited and so accept the stratification of participation that follows. We could reject qualifications as the source of the problem, and open up entry to HE. We could work to reduce the stratification of school-level outcomes being driven by a pupil`s background (as the newly-created Educational Endowment Foundation, the Pupil Premium and other linked policies are attempting). Or we could merely tinker with the use of prior qualifications as the preferred method of entry, adjusting a grade or two here and there, and allowing individual admissions tutors or widening participation (WP) representatives to make what are necessarily relatively uninformed decisions about who is worthy of a place in their university and at whose expense.

Perhaps the first two approaches are too bold, and the third is sensible and long overdue but still in its infancy, which is why WP activity in the UK, as defined by HEFCE and others, has boiled down to the fourth.

It is important to keep in mind the distinction between this WP aspiration and grade reduction approach and any direct attempts to improve the prior qualifications of disadvantaged pupils. The majority of non-participants and of the most disadvantaged young people are not close to attaining the qualifications needed to consider entering HE. There are quite a few 11-year-olds out there with an official reading-age of 5, for example. These are not the target of WP despite being objectively more in need of educational assistance than those just missing out on a few A-level grades and those who get A-levels but decide HE is not in their immediate future.

WP activities are almost exclusively focused on the “usual suspects”. They are also, as funded by HEFCE and others, heavily focused on each specific university or college of HE. The rewards and financial penalties for each higher education institute (HEI) mean WP has become an institutional recruiting strategy rather than a national approach. The outcome is that WP activists are striving to recruit from the very limited pool of potential, near-miss, students and are effectively fighting each other to do so. An activist who was particularly successful in persuading a large number of deserving marginal students to go to another HEI, rather than their own, would probably lose their job since they would be deemed ‘unsuccessful’ at widening participation! And each student brought in this way will usually replace another, now unsuccessful, applicant with higher grades.

It is no coincidence that the era of greatest widening of HE opportunities in the UK was from 1989 to 1993 when the number of HE places increased considerably for several reasons. The relative odds of a young person from a non-manual occupational background compared to a manual occupational background fell dramatically from 4 to 2.5 in a way that has not happened before or since, as I and colleagues set out in research in 2007.

Widening without also increasing participation does not make sense. It probably just replaces one set of injustices with another. These two limitations – the number of marginal applicants and the number of places – make WP, as currently conceived, just about impossible.

An obvious way of loosening the limitations and increasing our degrees of freedom in this area is to increase the pool of potential students. Since there is stratification by age as much as by sex and social class, maybe it makes more sense to widen participation by seeking out those people in older generations who are even more likely to have missed out because the funded participation rate was so much lower when they were younger. Meantime, others can work to reduce the poverty gradient in school outcomes for the next generation.

The real difficulty of WP is disguised by the lack of robust evaluation. AimHigher was never properly evaluated to see if it actually made a difference to attendance at university. HEFCE (2013, p.6) claims that “Evaluation is about making an assessment of the effectiveness and impact of what has been done”, and it does suggest looking at national datasets to see if WP has occurred. But the examples it gives of evaluation of impact are otherwise about whether student confidence is enhanced by mentoring, or whether attendance at a summer school programme increases student aspirations. The outcomes measured are very short-term, known to be volatile, hard to measure and with no evidence of impact on actual results like attainment or entry to HIM (Gorard 2012).

In fact, there have been few rigorously evaluated interventions worldwide to try to increase post-compulsory participation for disadvantaged groups. Few researchers or funders seem to care enough to find out what works. Some evidence suggests that mentoring, provided by faculty members, may have positive effects on the educational outcomes of ethnic minority students in the US. However, the overall evidence is far from convincing, and the most positive results tend to come from the smallest or weakest studies (Gorard and See 2013).

The most popular approach to making participation easier for under-represented disadvantaged groups is to remove barriers, including motivational ones. Overcoming the traditional barriers can and will only attract those most like those already participating, such as those with just an A level grade lower. Many individuals are already on a pathway or trajectory leading to HE or not long before application and admission, and it would require a longer term and more radical solution than overcoming barriers to influence this.

But, while long term, the idea of influencing aspirations and intentions directly is probably not radical enough. What people at age 11 say they might do at 16 or 18 is neither accurate nor reliable enough to be worth investing more in. The education system in England has compulsory schooling for all, based loosely on a comprehensive and egalitarian model, until age 16. A greater element of selection is introduced for continuation at 16+, such that prior attainment influences more than ever how an individual continues in formal education and training. This is despite growing pressure for everyone to continue formal education in some way. Some individuals leave formal learning at, or even before, 16 and never return. On one reading of the evidence, this is a key target group for the widening participation agenda – those least likely to participate again. But, of course, those least likely to participate again are largely ignored as poor bets in practice, in favour of those more like the usual suspects for HE.

Stephen Gorard

Durham University



Gorard, S. (2012) Querying the causal role of attitudes in educational attainment, ISRN Education, Volume 2012, Article ID 501589, 13 pages, doi:10.5402/2012/501589

Gorard, S. and See, B. (2013) Overcoming Disadvantage in Education, London: Routledge

Gorard, S., with Adnett, N., May, H., Slack, K., Smith, E. and Thomas, L. (2007) Overcoming barriers to HE, Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books

HEFCE (2013) Higher Education Outreach to Widen Participation: Toolkits, 4 Evaluation, http://www.bisa.ac.uk/files/Permanent%20Files/Evaluation.pdf




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