Reconceptualising Participation and Inclusion in Higher Education

Initiator Fund

Project period: September 2015 – January 2016

GW4 community leads
University of Bath:
Dr Andrea Abbas
University of Bristol: Dr Sue Timmis
Cardiff University: Professor David James
University of Exeter: Dr Deborah Osberg

Project overview

Our specific research focus is disadvantaged students and higher education (HE). The aim is to consolidate a network of researcher and practitioner capacity that will enable rigorous examination of the nature of participation in order to:

  1. Facilitate new, challenging questions about widening participation (WP) and HE.
  2. Create ‘new collaborative spaces’ for exploration and understanding.
  3. Identify potentially new approaches, which may in turn lead to a step-change in the way in which institutions frame their WP policies and procedures.

To address these objectives we have identified two potentially useful lenses:

  1. Integrating (WP) and inclusion research and practice.

Policy makers increasingly note the short comings of WP in focusing on access to university and ignoring the quality, nature, depth and comparative success of participation experienced by disadvantaged students. In contrast, the inclusion field focus on improving the learning experiences of students once they have accessed education. Inclusion debates and practices also tend to be narrow in that they focus on schools or disabled university students. Nevertheless they offer useful insights into particular aspects of learning experiences e.g. the role of technology in mediating participation.

  1. Expanding understandings of dimensions of disadvantage.

WP policy and practice is dominated by area-based proxy measures of low participation and by operationalisations of social class that are problematic as indictors of disadvantage. Other dimensions of disadvantage such as gender, age, ethnicity and disability are acknowledged in statistics but under-examined for impact. WP practitioners are increasingly aware of the need to address less well used indicators of disadvantage, such as ‘care leaver’. However, there has been little investigation into the ways that different forms of disadvantage intersect and interact.

We will exploit expertise within each institution to create new connections across GW4 and to develop a collaborative community focussed on expanding and strengthening research. We will bring together academics from education and other social science disciplines, undergraduate and postgraduate research students, and professional staff supporting WP and inclusion.

We will hold three full-day workshops. The overarching aim of the workshops are to highlight previous evidence and identify key problems and gaps, producing two briefing papers. We will also develop innovative research bids with regards to questions, approaches and methods. One major outcome will be a detailed multi-site research design that will form the core of future bidding for funds to conduct pilot work and wider empirical work.