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Spring 2002
ISSN 1477-1241

Published by the
Learning + Teaching Unit

Learning and Teaching in Action logo

Issue 1: Widening Participation and Access

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Rachel Forsyth

Widening Participation and Student Support
Sheila Aynsley Smith

Overcoming Barriers - Widening access to Higher Education
Ann Barlow

The University Foundation Year: a Work in Progress
Karen Moore

Online Mentoring - A Role in Widening Participation?
Mark Kent

Supporting Students to Improve Retention
Pauline Hearn

The Attraction, Support and Retention Project
Philip Lloyd and Louise Willmot

Connexions: a bridge for Widening Participation
Lydia Meryll

Visit days: do they really encourage students to choose us?
Susan McGrath

Widening Participation: the National Challenge
Geoff Layer

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Geoff Layer

Widening Participation: the National Challenge

The last two decades have seen a significant growth in participation in HE which has led to a number of challenges for universities and the student /teacher interface. The extent of the expansion has been dramatic when you look back with hindsight. I remember when I first taught at Sheffield City Polytechnic and we had 10 students in a seminar group and the experience was one in which people knew each other and it was a more informal process. The rapid expansion was delivered through incremental growth with roughly one student being added to the seminar group each year until suddenly you realised that you had over 20 students in the class. You struggled to remember their names, attendance deteriorated and everything had to be more formally recorded. This incremental change meant that the need for radical approaches to teaching in a very different way were suddenly upon us but we hadn't realised it.

The proposed changes to the participation rate to move to 50% of those under 30 engaging with HE will pose many more challenges for the sector. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) recently produced an analysis of supply and demand (HEFCE, 2001a) which showed how the sector had changed and the likely demand in years to come. There was considerable evidence of a slow down in the expansion and that the growing part of the population was in the socio economic groupings that typically had the lowest participation rates. So we are being asked to increase and broaden participation at a time when demand is not as robust as we would wish and for many institutions the only expansion is through greater penetration of low socio economic groups.

The removal of the limits on students that universities can recruit will probably lead to some movement within the sector with certain universities recruiting from groups normally targeted by others. This coupled with the static demand and the calls for expansion will place pressure on the institutional innovators who are seeking to change practice. The change is likely to be two fold in that it will focus on:

  • Changing the student intake to existing programmes with the knowledge that the new intake will come with different strengths and weaknesses and this will challenge the existing curriculum and support models and
  • Developing new courses for new markets through initiatives such as the Foundation Degree which shouldn't be seen simply as part of an honours degree but more radically as new provision for new learners.

Universities such as MMU have been at the heart of much of the initiative and invention within the sector and this is a further challenge to them.

For many HEIs considerable effort has been made over the last few years to raise aspirations amongst under-represented groups as a means of building capacity within young people so that the 50% target can be met and sustained. This is an important aspect of activity as it helps to encourage and prepare young people who have limited awareness and aspiration to enter HE.

HEFCE have recognised that widening participation to HE is not simply about different groups entering courses; it is also about making sure that they can succeed. Hence in June 2001 they produced two guides to good practice: one looking at learning and teaching strategies (HEFCE 2001b), and one looking at widening participation (HEFCE 2001c). The emphasis of the guides was to encourage institutions and staff within them to think holistically about the student experience and to recognise that changing the student intake may require change to the learning and teaching approaches. To help to achieve this it developed the student life cycle model which mapped out the interventions an institution can introduce to support change. The student life cycle has a number of stages:

  • Aspiration raising whereby HEIs work with different groups to build capacity and to demonstrate what can be gained through an HE experience.
  • Pre entry support which seeks to help to raise attainment prior to entry through additional support recognising the needs that some individuals have which aren't going to be met otherwise through taster courses and master classes.
  • Admissions support which often focuses on support with the process, compact arrangements and progression routes
  • Arrival which seeks to welcome the student but recognising that the days of freshers weeks which reflect only part of the new student intake and assume that all induction can be achieved in a week may no longer be relevant.
  • On course support through refocusing of student support approaches and curriculum reflection
  • Moving on by helping the learner to move into employment recognising that certain groups will need different support simply due to the vagaries of the employment market.

There is nothing original about the life cycle model; it simply allows universities and course teams to think about their approaches in a different way and to seek to link key activities.

The two major changes that occurred nationally are through the organisation of student support and challenges to teaching and learning. For many institutions the student support model was organised on a mixture of the traditional Oxbridge focus on academic tutorial input supported by a central service provision. The academic support became threatened through the years of expansion, the decline in the unit of resource and the increasingly anonymous student experience. The central service often equated to an Accident and Emergency Department as it dealt with scenarios when students were suffering from a particular problem. Many HEIs have recognised this as a slippery slope and have moved to more preventative care through more proactive student support models where the central service develops frameworks and works with departments over local delivery and providing workshops and drop in activities to nip difficulties in the bud.

The response from the curriculum side has been two fold. Either the development of "remedial" packages for students from different backgrounds whilst preserving the existing curriculum or a review of the curriculum to make sure that it build s from where the student is at in terms of their development rather than the assumption that the student should be at a particular place in their learning. There are of course many examples of both these approaches in an integrated way. It is also interesting that student success has become more crucial and that universities have started to develop retention strategies. This is challenging for hard pressed academics and the key to success is through helping colleagues to recognise the success they have already gained and to put in place the support models they may need to move the curriculum on.

Of course student financial support is a major focus of any change but we also need to remember that in an expanded sector the proportion of working class young people in HE is roughly the same as it was when we had grants. Or put another way when grants were in their heyday it did not attract major influxes from low socio economic groups. What is needed is a recognition of targeted financial support with all the capacity building measures we now have in place and moves to incorporate paid learning into the curriculum to embed the new form of financial support.

There are many challenges ahead of us in seeking greater diversity but the biggest is making sure that the curriculum and teaching and learning strategies are appropriate for all students and that they are designed to meet the starting point of the student.


HEFCE 2001a, Consultation 01/62, Supply and demand in higher education,

HEFCE 2001b, Guide 01/37, Strategies for learning and teaching in higher education,

HEFCE 2001c, Guide 01/36, Strategies for widening participation in higher education,

Professor Geoff Layer, Professor of Lifelong Learning and Dean of the School of Lifelong Education and Development, University of Bradford

March 2002
ISSN 1477-1241

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