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Widening participation: a confusion of tongues Jacqueline Stevenson Leeds Metropolitan University.

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Presentation on theme: "Widening participation: a confusion of tongues Jacqueline Stevenson Leeds Metropolitan University."— Presentation transcript:

1 Widening participation: a confusion of tongues Jacqueline Stevenson Leeds Metropolitan University

2 What do YOU mean by widening participation? What are the prevailing widening participation discourses? Who are the current WP target groups? Who is to blame for inequality in rates of participation? How do we see participation being widened in practice? What is the future of WP?

3 Inconsistencies, confusion and contradictions WP discourse? Equity, social justice and social inclusion Economic rationality (positions all those who can benefit from HE (HEFCE 2009) as 'consumers' of a free market of HE, with non-participation understood in terms of deficit or lack) WP target groups? Policy and funding - widening access along social class lines plus mature learners and disabled students Women make up around 55% of students and BME students are, in general, over-represented in HE Changes to university funding systems militate against the access of those from lower SEGs (abolition of maintenance grants, extension of loans to finance tuition and top-up fees) HEFCE WP web-site: … we are concerned with ensuring equality of opportunity for disabled students, mature students, women and men, and all ethnic groups Blame for inequality? Individual students - who fail to overcome weaknesses and difficulties HEIs - failure to attract working-class students; unwillingness to adapt; blame placed on individual staff with little influence over policies (e.g. fee levels). Rhetoric used by politicians to blame institutions for their failuresas if a tribe of crusty, hidebound academics are conspiring to keep non-traditional students out of higher education (Baker et al. 2006, 179).

4 More inconsistencies, confusion and contradictions WP practice? Different paradigmatic models of how WP is approached within HEIs: (Jones and Thomas 2005) Academic discourse - underpinned by a deficit model emphasizing attitudinal factors - lack of expectations or 'low aspirations; institutional activities: aspiration-raising activities with gifted and talented young people Utilitarian discourse - regards under-participation as a consequence of 'low aspirations' combined with a lack of academic qualifications - the double deficit model; institutional activities: employability, learning skills, and student support modules 'bolted on' to core work Transformative discourse - stresses the idea that there needs to be far- reaching change in higher education institutions to meet the needs of under- represented groups Future of WP? Conflicting WP philosophies amongst the educational experts as to how WP should evolve Thompson (2008) - stronger ideological commitment from HEIs to a greater civic mission remit, commitment to deepening engagement with local communities not just widening participation Walker - widening participation to be reconceptualised as widening capability, enabling students to become and to be 'strong evaluators', able to make reflexive and informed choices about what makes a good life for each of them (2008, 267)

5 Consequences Tensions within the governments own policy (e.g funding) Academically - the debate and the practice of widening participation have become congested and thus little real progress is likely (Sheeran et al. 2007, 259). Paradoxes in institutional practice, with WP operating around contradictory claims, leading to disjointed WP activity, variably valorised and differently played out across the institution (Jones and Thomas 2005) Our institutional case study was, therefore, designed to understand how staff were making sense of their practice in the light of the multiple discourses within the field including: –commitment to WP and the discourses underpinning this –staff definitions of WP and the underlying values behind these –the types of WP activities being undertaken and the rationale for such activity –documentary and image analysis; web-based questionnaire (94 staff); in-depth semi-structured interviews (29 staff)

6 Results Defining widening participation –still existed (no WP policy)? subsumed under other more generic activity? –specific WP activity no longer existed, or needed to exist, across the university as it has been mainstreamed –staff had absorbed multiple messages about the definition(s) of WP - based on the conflicting messages they had received: wide-ranging, specific, ambiguous; definitive or tentative and uncertain - unstable views of WP and their definitions were contradictory, shifted or even re-focussed during the course of an interview The rationale for widening participation –heavily values-based orientation towards WP –WP activity played out differently across the institution (e.g. in some areas almost all students who were not white, male or middle-class were regarded as WP students) Commitment to widening participation –Senior levels – belief in strong institutional commitment but not filtering down –Less senior levels - strong personal commitment to WP and struggle to maintain this personal commitment to WP in the face of a lack of care or negativity from others

7 Results Discourse of blame –Because of the relative incoherence of WP definitions and practice people were drawing on local and personal values, and were likely to blame everyone else when other peoples practice was contradictory to their own. These staff appeared to normalise their own understanding of WP and to use their tacit understanding as a basis for criticising imagined others –Rather than positioning the problem as being created by ambiguity in government policy or in wider socio-structural constraints the problem is located locally and with particular individuals –This blaming of individuals mirrors the individualism of the WP discourse itself which places the problem of participation at the door of students and their parents rather than with the institutional habitus and social structural constraints Conclusion –As long as the policy context and the philosophical rationale for WP remain unclear and contested, WP practice is likely to remain the preserve of committed individuals and WP practice at the local level will be largely incapable of having a sustained impact on broader institutional cultures and discourse.

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