The Society for Research into Higher Education

Penny Jane Burke

Access and widening participation in higher education

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By Penny-Jane Burke

Questions of access and widening participation continue to pose significant challenges for policy-makers and practitioners in higher education with enduring and persistent inequalities at play.  Research has a central role to play in shaping the future directions of equity policy and practice, creating innovative methodologies and providing detailed and nuanced analysis to examine and unearth the root causes of ongoing inequalities. Research has traced the ways that inequalities are exacerbated by the multiple uncertainties and complexities characterising contemporary higher education, with profound changes being shaped by externally imposed and interconnecting political forces including globalisation, neoliberalism, neoconservatism, corporatisation, neo-patriarchy and neocolonialism.

In this contemporary context of higher education, there is increasing pressure for universities to position themselves as ‘world-class’, to aggressively compete in a highly stratified field driven by discourses of ‘excellence’ and to address the expectations of an all embracing league table culture striking at the very heart of university research and teaching. The ways that ‘excellence’ is placed in tension with ‘equity’ is unspoken and both ‘excellence’ and ‘equity’ are reduced to measurable outputs. Against this hyper-competitive and hierarchical landscape, concerns about widening participation, equity and social justice have been narrowed to aspirations of employability, efficiency and competency, with a strong emphasis on business and economic imperatives and logics.

Widening participation policy and practice has been preoccupied with concerns about ‘fair access’ and ‘raising aspirations’ of those classified as ‘disadvantaged’, ‘vulnerable’ and/or ‘excluded’ but simultaneously constructed as ‘bright’, with ‘potential’, ‘talent’ and ‘ability’. Such perspectives of widening participation have been extensively critiqued by higher education researchers for failing to address the structures, systems, practices and cultures of educational institutions that are deeply complicit in the social reproduction of inequality and exclusion. The politics of recognition, which profoundly forms processes of selection and exclusion and sensibilities of (not) belonging, is concealed from view.

The increasing levels of instrumentalism and utilitarianism shaping discourses of widening participation have been challenged for failing to engage significant and complex questions relating to the right to higher education, not only about who has access, but also the purposes of and what it means to participate in higher education in the twenty-first century. Although most universities now aspire to showcase their ‘diversity’, this is often couched in the language of the market and the growing levels of the commercialisation of higher education. Such frameworks fail to problematise the ways that diversity is entangled with historical inequalities and the politics of difference and recognition.

Universities are increasingly encouraged to develop ‘evidence-based’ policy and practice but this locks policy-makers and practitioners into constrained and reductive ways of thinking about equity issues. ‘Evidence’ emphasises generalisability and objectivity, with a strong focus on the tangible, observable and measurable and is often embedded in those technologies of classification that perpetuate rather than challenge polarising discourses and dividing practices. Evidence is clearly important in uncovering patterns of inequality but only provides restrictive knowledge and insight. The formation of policy and practice for access and widening participation requires a broader ‘research-informed’ framework, informed by interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies, that aim to capture the contextual and subjective layers of inequality, which are often unwittingly reproduced through taken-for-granted practices or assumptions.

Lived and embodied experiences of inequality are difficult to ‘evidence’ and measure because these work at the everyday level of lived experience and emotion. Generating knowledge about the ways that insidious inequalities work requires a range of fine-tuned research methodologies that are designed to explore the fluidity of power and social relations, the complexity of intersecting differences and socio-cultural contexts, the ways that social practices and processes might be historically embedded and taken-for-granted, as well as to trace, map and quantify patterns of inequality that are intersecting, multiple and contextual.

Research in the field of equity in higher education has noted that widening participation policy discourses tend to focus on outreach and access, projecting the problem as ‘out there’ – outside universities – paying little attention to participation in higher education,. This ignores the ways that universities are often deeply complicit in perpetuating inequalities and exclusions through standardising and homogenizing technologies, related to aspirations for ‘excellence’. Indeed, some researchers have uncovered the ways that the discourses of ‘inclusion’ operate as a form of symbolic violence, forcing those seen as ‘excluded’ to conform to the conventions, expectations and values of dominant frameworks and identities and to participate in a process of ‘transformation’ into normalised personhoods (Archer, 2003).

The limited forms of support provided to students from under-represented backgrounds tend to be remedial in nature, informed by polarising discourses (Williams, 1997), designed to ‘fix’ and re/form those students identified as ‘non-standard’ into ‘legitimate’ students. Similarly, new technologies of managerialism (such as key performance indicators, targets and workload formula) are used to regulate the practices and identities of teachers, researchers and professional staff. Students and staff thus learn that to be a ‘participant’ in higher education requires the continual working of and on the self, to conform to the institutional requirements and expectations which are framed by external technologies of regulation connected to neoliberal forms of globalisation (such as university world rankings).

Hegemonic policies and practices work to silence and make difference and inequality invisible, often through references to social inclusion, widening participation and diversity. Difference tends to be reduced to the marketing images of happy university students from ‘Other’ kinds of backgrounds. Diversity is often constructed as unproblematic and desirable, whilst difference is to be controlled through standardisation and disciplining processes. The anxiety about the closeness of the ‘Other’ to those deemed to be legitimate university participants is often expressed through narratives about the ‘dumbing down’ of HE pedagogies, the ‘feminisation of HE’ and the assumed lack of discipline, passion for learning and aspiration often associated with students constructed as non-standard from Other social backgrounds. Those seen as deserving of higher education must conform to and master the normalising and disciplining practices of HE pedagogies, participation and practices.

We need a praxis-based approach to equity – that brings interdisciplinary and critical research in dialogue with policy and practice, in a reciprocal, iterative and collaborative framework. The field of research in equity in higher education must be brought into closer relation with equity policy and practice to build collaborative processes that aim to uncover and challenge the exclusionary effects of technologies of regulation, standardisation and homogenisation. Such a praxis-oriented framework requires critical and reflexive attention to the affective, cultural, subjective and symbolic dimensions of higher educational access and participation, to processes of misrecognition, as well as to forms of redistribution.

Penny-Jane Burke is Professor of Education at the University of Roehampton, London and the University of Newcastle, Australia. Penny is also co-convenor of SRHE Access and Widening Participation Network.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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