Access to and Widening Participation in Higher Education

Penny Burkepost by PENNY JANE BURKE
Professor of Education and Director of the Paulo Freire Institute-UK
University of Roehampton

The hegemony of global neoliberalism has gradually transformed the landscape of higher education, profoundly reorienting equity discourses away from social justice and towards economic imperatives. Struggles over the right to higher education have been articulated over the past 15 years through the now well-established ‘widening participation’ (WP) policy agenda. When New Labour came to power in 1997, it placed WP at the heart of higher education reforms, with a strong and enduring emphasis on ‘raising aspirations’. WP continues to be a central tenet of HE policy under the 2010 Coalition government, attracting considerable public and higher education institution (HEI) funding. In April 2014, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published the National Strategy for Access and Student Success, renewing a national commitment to WP but placing increased responsibility on individual HEIs to ensure that the WP mechanisms they have in place are effective and worthwhile by conducting evaluations and collecting evidence. Despite a long-term national commitment to and large financial investment in WP, there is evidence that lower socio-economic groups are still not accessing or progressing through HE; Les Ebdon, Director of the Office For Fair Access, has claimed that ‘children from the wealthiest families… [are] up to eight times more likely to win places than the most disadvantaged…at the most selective institutions’.

Rather than draw attention to social inequalities, policy is focused on individual merit and aspiration. The emphasis of policy on potential and disadvantage has been further intensified with a focus on those with ‘high potential from disadvantaged backgrounds’. Yet, the complex processes by which a child or young person might be recognized as having ‘high potential’ is framed by the values and perspectives of those with the institutional authority to make judgements and to contribute to technologies of classification. WP is perceived as an agenda of inclusion and equity, without a critique of the discourses of ‘inclusion’ and ‘equity’. Indeed, ‘inclusion’ often works as a reproductive mechanism to ‘include those who are excluded into the dominant framework/state of being, rather than challenging existing inequalities within the mainstream system, or encouraging alternative ways of being’. Discourses of equity are similarly problematic when they rest on decontextualised and disembodied understandings, which emphasise the need to treat everyone the same. This does not acknowledge the ways that children and young people are differentially located and positioned across social differences and power relations, where some students (and their parents/families) are misrecognised through derogatory discourses of deficit and lack.

The need to ‘raise aspirations’ of children and young people from socially disadvantaged backgrounds has been a central focus of WP policy. However, this overlooks the significant interconnections between a person’s aspirations and their classed, racialised, (hetero)sexualised and gendered identities, ignoring the social, spatial and cultural contexts in which some children and young people are misrecognised as lacking aspiration. Aspirations are formed through social relations, identity formations and are negotiated and renegotiated within the social contexts in which the child is situated; they are not linear in formation but cyclical and reflexive. Policy developments that aim to tackle social exclusion and inequalities must take into account the discursive, emotional and subjective nature of aspiration-making. Utilitarian and instrumental approaches to WP are stuck at the attitudinal level, unable to capture the complexity of educational aspiration.

Concerns about quality and WP are often juxtaposed in policy discourses, reinforcing differences, misrecognitions and exclusions. For example, those identified as potential students from ‘WP backgrounds’ are often associated with courses and institutions constructed as ‘lower status’, in order to ‘safeguard the standards of traditional honours degrees’, thus reproducing inequalities and misrecognitions at both institutional and individual levels. Inequalities and misrecognitions are insidious and subtle and thus difficult to capture through the forms of evaluation and evidence currently used to develop national and institutional policy of widening participation. We thus need critical, reflexive and praxis-oriented interventions that illuminate the complexities of social and symbolic inequalities across educational contexts and relations.

The Paulo Freire Institute-UK is a critical space of praxis where people are invited to develop social justice agendas for schools, colleges and HE and through lifelong learning.

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