Widening participation in higher education – the view from a city


In 2013 the All-Party Parliamentary Group on social mobility stated that ‘we were looking for communities, schools, programmes or business sectors that could be said to buck the trend of poor social mobility in Britain. Time and again, that search led back to London’. It is not surprising that London is lauded as such a success since, as the most recent data shows, almost 50% of young people in London, including those from some of the most deprived areas of the city, progress from school to higher education.

However, whilst participation rates have increased across the whole of the UK, the gap in participation between London and the rest of the country has widened. Although the participation rate in Wimbledon, the parliamentary constituency with the highest young participation rate nationally, is 68% this is, shockingly, four times greater than that in Nottingham North. Many areas of Yorkshire and the Humber have similarly poor progression rates. In Sheffield, for example, less than a third of young people will progress to HE, and whilst some areas have had very big increases in participation rates (for example Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough) these and other areas of Sheffield still have rates that are among the lowest in the country. “Overall, young people in the most disadvantaged areas of the UK would need to treble their participation rate in order to match the rate of those from the most advantaged areas” (http://www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/year/2013/201328/).

London may lead the way but London is also unique and what works for London may not work elsewhere. The reasons for such disparities are complex and because of this addressing and redressing them is necessarily equally complex. However discussions relating to widening participation and access to higher education can often be spoken of in largely abstract terms or described in ways which lack an understanding of local contexts. Sheffield is not London and if policy makers, and the practitioners who implement their policies, are to address the disparities between progression rates across the country then any considerations of WP need to be grounded in considerations of ‘the local’. This means being alert to, and attending to, the micro practices of WP, to how WP practices at a local level shape and influence choice-making, access, progression and success and how, in turn, these inform issues of in/justice and in/equality. This will not be the same in Sheffield as it is in London, or Belfast or Cardiff or Glasgow, or in Wales, or Northern Ireland or Scotland. Each of these areas face different challenges in relation to WP.

The need to contextualise WP in relation to the specificities of ‘the local’ underpin a forthcoming series of seminars I am delivering as part of a partnership between the Society for Research into Higher Education and the University’s Association for Lifelong Learning, supported by the Sheffield-based Higher Education Progression Partnership (a collaboration between Sheffield Hallam and Sheffield Universities, as well as colleges and schools across Sheffield and the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership – see http://extra.shu.ac.uk/hepp/). The first of these seminars were launched last week, using WP and access-related research to explore, amongst other areas: how ‘local’ is conceptualised and researched and how this shapes thinking and practice; how connections are made across cities and regions and the strategies adopted to try and connect the local with the national; the micro practices of WP and how these shape and are shaped by macro (national) and the meso (institutional) policies and practice; and what lessons can be learned for researching WP across cities or regions.

Two of these seminars are focussing specifically on the city of Sheffield. The first will explore the relationships between the school sector and higher education institutions, drawing on the use of contextual data at the national level, and the practices and strategies of widening participation at the local level. As part of the seminar a local sixth form college manager and an HE outreach professional will come together for a discussion of the challenges of collaborating across this sector divide. The second seminar , taking place at Sheffield Hallam, will ask critical questions relating to knowledge and the curriculum: the contributors will locate considerations of inequalities in relation to students’ success and the relationship between national and institutional policies, curriculum, and ‘powerful knowledge’, focussing on how the City of Sheffield is seeking to enable greater access through considerations of academic preparedness and academic choice making.

Through these sessions, as well as those which will follow in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, before returning to London, academics, researchers and practitioners will consider how understanding the micro and the local can enhance widening participation practice. To book please see https://www.srhe.ac.uk/events/

Jacqueline Stevenson





Professor Jacqueline Stevenson is the Head of Research at Sheffield Institute of Education






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