When you shouldn’t always listen to your VC about WP: spurious explanations of widening participation performance

by Stella Jones-Devitt

Recently HEPI produced a report Benchmarking WP: how should we measure and report progress? In it, Professor Iain Martin, the VC of Anglia Ruskin University suggests that sole reliance on one singular crude measure of disadvantage, namely POLAR quintiles, should be avoided. Who would disagree?

Prof Martin favours applying the Gini index to the collected POLAR data to add a more nuanced approach to measuring the WP performance of higher education providers (HEPs). Gini is used primarily to measure economic inequality. It awards a score of 0 to any aspect in which ‘perfect equality’ is achieved across a set of evenly distributed categories. A score of 1 represents the diametric opposite, known unsurprisingly as ‘perfect inequality’.

In the report, he suggests that any HEP which has perfect distribution of its student population across all 5 of the POLAR quintiles (1 being most disadvantaged to 5 as most advantaged) should be given a Gini rating of 0. He has even produced a colourful graphic which shows the Gini index for HEPs admissions for 2016 (as the latest data point). This has led to claims by several HEPs represented at the top of the diagram that they are in the top ten for class equality. Perhaps time to examine these claims?

If we apply the logic of this approach to another context, flaws become obvious. It suggests that putting a chihuahua against a greyhound, of comparable age, in a 100 metres race from the same starting line constitutes fairness. Yes, both are dogs, per se, but one has had a distinct advantage from birth with no further effort required to sustain its lead. The greyhound will get to the finish line first on every occasion barring pestilence and plague. Surely we need to consider more sophisticated notions of equity rather than advocating raw measures of decontextualised equality within an already unequal society?

Evidence on poorer children’s educational attainment by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, alongside countless other organisations committed to researching social justice, note that entrenched differences, and with it, an emergent pattern of differential outcomes, are well established due to complex social factors by the age of 7. This is why it is misleading to suggest that treating everyone the same is an effective form of widening participation. Why should the presumably well-educated academic workforce believe that this entrenched differentiation from very early years’ changes suddenly in the HE sector?

An interesting riposte to this report is presented within When is widening participation not widening participation? which identifies that there is a fundamental flaw in using POLAR plus Gini application. POLAR uses 18 year olds’ experiences, therefore excluding a considerable proportion of the WP population, such as mature students, who make up a sizeable proportion of whom many HEPs seek to attract in diversifying their HE offer. Consequently, several HEPs, seen as demonstrating a real strategic commitment to WP, are excluded from Martin’s report. The constructed rankings represent a skewed picture of equality in the Sector.

Perhaps a more telling way to benchmark WP concerns looking at a range of measures within the sector covering the WP experience across the HE lifecycle, not those relating solely to access. Measures should identify when students with known WP profiles gain comparable entry to HE across all the mission groups; succeed equally with their non-WP counterparts throughout their studies; gain sustained access to the same high level earning occupations as other student groups. This would at least be a start rather than using spurious notions of WP that fool very few.

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