Widening participation; what is it and what does it mean for students, universities and the country?

If you read newspapers or follow some of the education media, you may have seen references to widening participation. Perhaps you wondered what it is, or whether it applies to you. To really understand what commentators are talking about, it’s worth looking back at higher education in past decades. 

By the end of the 1950s, between 5 and 10% of the population went to university or teacher-training colleges. They paid no fees, and went on to get the best jobs and earn the most money. Who were these privileged few? The answer lies in the word privileged; they were almost all from high and middle-income households, those who had attended the best schools and whose parents had also been to university. One way of describing UK higher education in this period was an ‘elite’ system, one where a small minority were given the opportunity to gain the most valuable skills and knowledge. 

By the time the 1960s arrived, the world had changed. There was a greater sense of ‘fairness’, which meant that politicians were aware that many more should benefit from higher education. There was also a better understanding of the importance of a skilled labour force when looking at economic growth. Since then we have seen continued growth in participation and now well over 40% of 18-30 year olds are, or have been, in higher education of some kind. 

This change from an ‘elite’ to a mass-participation system has had some important implications. The first is that we have seen a move to those who participate paying the cost directly, rather than simply through the tax system; successive governments have come to the conclusion that while 5% of the population could be fully supported by taxpayers, 40% plus cannot. 

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The second implication is perhaps more interesting - what does a higher participation rate mean for those who do not go to university? In order to think about this, we need to look at who goes, who doesn’t go, and what the different outcomes are.

Widening participation or widening access is the broad term for policies that increase the number of students from backgrounds that are under-represented in UK higher education. This includes students from low-income households; those whose parents have not been to university and students with disabilities. There is also evidence of low participation among some ethnic groups, for example young white men from low income households. 

Why do we see low participation rates in some groups? Finance may be an issue. The current system enables all students to borrow for their fees, but those from low-income households will find maintenance more difficult than those whose parents can help. Another issue is access to information. If you come from a family who have experience of higher education it may feel less daunting and the value may be clearer. In many cases, the problem is made worse by achievement in school; areas where schools are lower quality are often areas with higher levels of poverty. 

Even if we understand why participation may be unequal, this still leaves two big questions. Does it actually matter? And can we do anything about it? On the first question it may be sensible to take two different approaches, economists would summarise this as thinking about equity and efficiency. 

Equity is about fairness; as a society we generally want people’s lives to be determined by their ability and their effort, not by what their parents or grandparents did. Those who go to university earn a great deal more on average, over their lifetime. They not only earn more, but they are less likely to be unemployed and more likely to experience good health right into their old age. 

The other aspect, efficiency, is about ensuring that we get the best outcome for the country in terms of productivity and income. If bright young people are not able to benefit from going to university, it is clearly a waste of potential, both for them and for society as a whole. 

So if we agree that widening participation is important, what can we do to help? There are a number of initiatives, both national and by individual institutions. OFFA - the Office for Fair Access- is a government-backed organisation that works with universities across the country to ensure they are doing all they can to recruit under-represented groups. In addition many universities offer either fees that are below the maximum £9,000 or give students additional money to help with their maintenance. 

On the information side, the sector undertakes outreach work; often giving those at school a taste of university study, raising aspirations among those who might have felt it was not for them. Perhaps most importantly, some institutions are focusing strongly on what students from under-represented backgrounds will go on to do after university, ensuring that they not only have the knowledge and technical ability that comes with a degree, but that they also acquire networking and other skills that will allow them to take up the best jobs in the professions, in business and in government. To many of us, this is the key to real social mobility. 

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Alison Wride is a professor of economics and Provost of GSM London.