Peter Ashworth

  • Widening Participation: Diversity or Inequity?

    Peter Ashworth(1), S Clegg(1), J Nixon(2)

    1. Sheffield Hallam University.
    2. University of Sheffield.

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: Institutional strategies

    Given the overall theme of the Conference, it is important to reflect on the way diversity and inclusivity are represented as part of widening participation (WP) in debates about the future of higher education. In particular we want to explore the paradox that an increasingly strident rhetoric of WP co-exists with increasingly evident stratification of higher educational institutions. We have on the one hand widening participation, but on the other hand the narrowing down of opportunities for access to valued education. There is an actual hierarchy of privilege, which is amplified by a variation in the esteem with which employers and others view students' degrees. In this paper we take the specific case of England, but there are parallel debates in all counties with publicly funded higher education.

    Conceived in the very different political atmosphere of the Robbins Report (1963) on higher education, WP is still evoked as a metaphor for fairness, but now government higher education policy is driven by the globalised marketplace, and a rhetoric of ‘world-class’ universities. Thus the debate about the future of HE emphasises a stratification of universities. Increased inequalities across the sector are expressed in class, gendered, and racialised hierarchies among both staff and students. That everyone knows this to be true can be demonstrated through the operation of league tables. Ashworth in his ISL keynote last year derived alternative tables with different hierarchies. He showed that these were unbelievable precisely because they did not correspond to the known realties of privilege.

    In this situation, therefore, we find the widened participation to which students are invited is often to an underprivileged educational experience in which the integrity of academic practice within the HE institution is lost. Missing, often, are the complementary activities of research, scholarship and teaching. To atomise these activities is, we argue, to change the nature of academic practice and to increase the systemic inequalities across the sector as a whole. While providing evidence of these inequalities, we also seek to provide an alternative viewpoint based upon the idea of widening participation as increased access to the integrated goods of higher education. We believe, and argue for, a comprehensive higher education system with the moral and political will to resist the atomisation of academic practice which (through the systematic stratification of institutions of higher education) is already putting at risk the capacity of the sector to contribute to a fair and just society.

    The implications are that (1) widening participation in valued education is a very costly option and requires significant public investment; (2) a different kind of managerial leadership, based on care for the sector as a whole rather than on institutional self-interest is required, and (3) academic workers need to re-connect with a radical agenda for change – one which redefines academic professionalism in terms of the intrinsic goods of academic practice and the fair and equal distribution of those goods. To be resisted is widening participation which gains the student an underprivileged educational experience and a degree which lacks esteem.