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October 9, 2023

Widening Participation in 2023: shifting policy drivers, shifting institutional responses

Widening participation is essentially about two things: 1) making it easier for underrepresented groups to access higher education than it would be otherwise – a project closely tied to notions of social justice and attempts to eradicate access inequality; 2) it is about ensuring that there is a sufficiently highly educated labour force for the needs of the national economy. Therefore, it is of importance to Higher Education (HE) providers and to national policymakers. Over the last four decades or so, participation among young people (including from previously underrepresented groups) has indeed grown, and to a certain extent widened, although the most advantaged young people are still on average far more likely to attend university than the least advantaged.

The context in which this happens in the UK and particularly the English HE system is that autonomous providers on the OfS Register are validated to offer places to anyone they deem suitably qualified for a place. Students are then entitled to student loans to cover fees which are underwritten by the taxpayer. So, the state has an interest in how many people access the system but has no direct control on who – or how many – accesses the system. The state prefers that institutions compete for students and have created, over several decades, a complex market where applicants (young people at school) make choices about where and what they study if they achieve the entry grades required by those institutions (McCaig et al. 2022). So, what do we know about the 2023 entry and how might that impact on widening participation?

According to David Kernohan at Wonkhe (Kernohan 2023) we are seeing “an unwinding of the pandemic effect which saw recruitment soar to an unprecedented level” to the extent that acceptances are roughly where we would expect given the demographics, slightly up on the last pre-Covid year of 2019. In relation to widening participation data, the ten-year trend sees a continuation of the ‘rising tide floats all boats’ meme – the ratios between highest and lowest participation areas remain steady as Covid unwinds across the sector.

However, here at Sheffield Hallam (and probably at many other similar providers), financial pressures seem to be leading to a repositioning that may threaten the widening participation project in more invidious ways. In a recent blog, our VC Chris Husbands outlined the 2023-24 budget strategy which included the lines “portfolio redevelopment and growth subject areas”; and “raising quality through increased tariff”. These priorities can be seen to reflect increasing government pressure on ‘low quality courses’, fleshed out by right-wing calls for minimum eligibility for student loans (e.g. Swinford 2023). If Sheffield Hallam and similar institutions reshape their offer – perhaps to maximise places on courses that can demand a higher tariff – and close off opportunities to those with lower UCAS tariff points, what does that say about such providers as widening participation institutions, given the correlation between disadvantage and school leaving grades?

What do these trends imply for widening participation? It is clear that the long held cross-party consensus that increasing and widening access to university is a good thing is fraying at the edges. This comes in many forms, not least the pressure being applied by the Department for Education that redirecting some young people into Degree Apprenticeships and other Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) is preferable. Government ministers, particularly Rob Halfon, the universities minister, clearly see such routes as the answer to the perceived conundrum of too many young people taking the wrong kind of provision:
“high-quality qualifications lead to well-paid jobs” … “this is my blueprint for assessing whether university courses are delivering for those enrolled.” (Dickinson 2023)

At the same HEPI conference in June, John Blake, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said the regulator had taken “account of government priorities” and was pleased to increase funding to further support students who wish to take alternative routes into higher education.
However, this ignores a couple of key facts – one is the cost and regulatory issues around setting up Degree Apprenticeships but also that NSS findings suggest those on them:
“…have the lowest scores of all the qualification types on expectations met, value for money, belonging, unstructured/disorganised teaching, teachers that are poor at explaining things, and … considering leaving because of finances” (Dickinson, 2023).

So why would universities engage in a new area of provision which actively harms one of the key indicators of quality that the OfS and ministers use to castigate them? Plenty of other research and data findings (including some revealed by an ongoing SIRKE project led by myself and Charlynne Pullen) suggest that those enrolled on Degree Apprenticeships do not easily fit into the typical ‘widening participation’ student profile that ministers routinely identify (being on average older, already in employment, and if younger with typically higher UCAS tariff points than widening participation cohorts). However, rather than focus on whether Degree Apprenticeships could ever become a significant alternative to university education for those traditionally underrepresented, I am more concerned by the apparent policy direction these recent trends represent and how providers that have traditionally engaged in widening participation work react to these new policy drivers.

References
Dickinson, J. (2023, June 22). What did Robert Halfon have to say to HEPI? Wonkhe Wonk Corner https://wonkhe.com/wonk-corner/what-did-robert-halfon-have-to-say-to-hepi/
Kernohan, D. (2023, September 4). What we have learned from Clearing 2023: Are we really all doomed? Wonkhe Wonk Corner https://wonkhe.com/wonk-corner/what-we-have-learned-from-clearing-2023/
McCaig, C, Rainford, J and Squire, R (Eds) (2022) The Business of Widening Participation: policy, practice and culture, Emerald Publishing.
Swinford, S. (2023 August 11). Student loan ban call for those with low A levels, The Times https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/student-loan-ban-call-for-low-a-levels-wtttglnf2


Colin McCaig is Professor of Higher Education Policy in the Sheffield Institute of Education Research and Knowledge Exchange Centre (SIRKE), Sheffield Institute of Education