Widening participation refers to the work done in education to increase the number of young people entering higher education, and more specifically increasing the proportion of these students who are from underrepresented groups. It has long been the priority of higher education providers but now gains more attention from schools, colleges, employers and external agencies. The aim is to create a diverse body of students at each higher education institution and to ensure that all young people, irrespective of circumstances, have the information and support they need to make an informed decision about their future.
Groups that are typically underrepresented in higher education include:
- Young people from low income backgrounds and low socioeconomic groups;
- Young people who live in neighbourhoods where progression to higher education is low;
- Young people who are the first in their family to consider higher education;
- Young people attending schools and colleges where performance and progression to higher education falls below the national average;
- Young people who are care experienced;
- Young people with a disability;
- Young people who are young carers;
- Young people from under-represented ethnic backgrounds.
There is a vast array of research undertaken to understand why these groups are less likely to progress to higher education and some findings have suggested that this is due to a lack of understanding regarding course types and study options, not having any first-hand experience/role models who have studied higher education, and fears and misconceptions about student finance etc.
Who is responsible for widening participation?
Higher education providers offer a range of events and activities to support widening participation for their institutions, there are also impartial initiatives which aim to raise the profile of higher education more generally and raise the aspirations of young people in these under-represented groups. Activities aim to overcome social, cultural, economic and institutional barriers to higher education and can include activities such as visits to university and college campuses, having ambassadors visit school to deliver talks and interactive session on a number of topics, and online programmes of activities like mentoring and webinars.
Schools and colleges play an important role in widening participation as these activities can be embedded into the academic calendar to ensure students are gaining a full picture of the higher education landscape during their time in compulsory education. It is becoming an increasing priority in schools to provide a stable careers education curriculum and support encounters with higher education providers to meet the Gatsby benchmarks. However, it is not just the responsibility of the careers leader in school to embed a culture of higher education progression in a school. All teachers and staff with a responsibility for young people have the power to influence the students they work so closely with and having an understanding of the higher education offer can mean they are well placed to support young people in making informed decisions in their role.
The Regional Picture: Progression to Higher Education in the North East
The North East has been identified as the region in which young people are least likely to access higher education (HEFCE: Trends in young participation in Higher Education, January 2017). Although the rates are improving the region is still below the national average and below other areas of the UK. There are a number of factors that influence progression, some of which are outlined below:
- Education and attainment
- Socio-economic status
- Schools effects
- Behavioural Factors
It is well documented that there is a stark difference between the percentage of young people receiving free school meals who progress to higher education compared to those who don’t and in the North East that gap is one of the widest in the country. It is also worth considering that the North East has higher proportions of young people receiving free school meals than other areas in England.
Why is this work important?
It is predicted that by the year 2022 half of all jobs will require a higher education qualification of some type and therefore it is important to the region that young people are well qualified and able to achieve their goals. The largest employing sectors in the North East are:
Strong growth in demand is also forecast for highly skilled occupations such as managers, associate professionals and technical occupations.
You can find the latest Labour Market Information (LMI) and growth sector information for the region on the North East Local Enterprise Partnership and Tees Valley Combined Authority websites.
The benefits of studying a higher education qualification are not limited to future career, studying at this level also develops a young person’s cultural awareness, life skills and extended networks, all of which bring benefits lasting a lifetime. Some young people have a clear idea about their future from a very young age but others do not, outreach activities can help students consider their future options and provide information and advice on a number of routes. The activities can also result in students becoming more focused on their studies and more motivated and committed to school life.