Much has been written about what works in terms of widening participation (wp) – and its close cousins student retention and progression – into and through higher education. Indeed, as the Scottish Funding Council’s Outcome Agreements were brought in for the academic year 2012/13, the topic has come back to the mainstream media in an almost unprecedented way. These Outcome Agreements “set out what colleges and universities plan to deliver in return for their funding from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC). Their focus is on the contribution that the colleges and universities make towards improving life chances, supporting world-class research and creating sustainable economic growth for Scotland.” (source: http://www.sfc.ac.uk/funding/OutcomeAgreements/OutcomeAgreementsOverview.aspx)
Gathering evidence to support the plethora of wp work we do, as an institution and in partnership with local councils, schools and other organisations such as Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools (LEAPS: www.leapsonline.org) can be challenging. The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) is the single measure used by the SFC to determine who is a wp student. Universities Scotland – a representative body made up of the Principals of all 19 Scottish higher education institutions – has pointed out that “Universities take a broad approach to widening access which focuses on addressing under-representation of all kinds including the participation of students with disabilities and care leavers alongside those from less advantaged socio-economic groups. Universities will continue to approach their role in widening access on this broad understanding; an approach with is evident in universities’ intentions as laid out in their outcome agreements on access.” (http://www.universities-scotland.ac.uk/index.php?mact=News,cntnt01,detail,0&cntnt01articleid=142&cntnt01returnid=23)
Indeed, we can see that the SIMD does not always accurately present a true picture of the areas of deprivation in Scotland (http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Statistics/SIMD/FAQRuralIssues) so care should certainly be taken when using this as a sole measure of wp. As universities, we are being encouraged to look at applicants as a whole yet are only measured using one factor – postcode. That is not to suggest that we should not be using contextualised admissions but it seems odd that the two do not stack up beside each other.
The University of Edinburgh has used contextualised admissions since 2004. This means we look at applicants not simply as a set of grades and a personal statement but in the context of their achievements e.g. how have they performed within the context of their school’s performance alongside other information contained within the UCAS form. Rebecca Gaukroger, Head of Admissions at The University of Edinburgh, said ‘…our use of contextual data alongside other information in the UCAS application has enabled us to identify those students who best demonstrate the academic ability, resilience and commitment to succeed at Edinburgh.” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/9450533/Universities-accused-of-socially-engineering-intakes.html)
So what of the individual impact we make on thousands of pupils every year? How do we measure that in a helpful way – or at all? Wp is about much more than socio-economic status. It starts with early intervention to raise aspirations and works best through partnerships between schools, colleges, local authorities and universities. It also involves the pupils’ families.
As someone who not only increasingly works at the policy end of widening participation issues but also designs and delivers all the wp activities for Edinburgh Law School, I have quite a unique insight into these issues. I attended a wonderful celebratory event last week to congratulate some local s2 (s1 at the time of the programme) pupils from Wester Hailes Education Centre and Liberton High School. These pupils were part of our Early Years project and had spent a series of Friday afternoons visiting various places like the Parliament, the Museum on the Mound (the event is sponsored by Lloyds Scholars programme) and the University of Edinburgh.
Their time at UoE was spent with me and we had a law workshop where we discussed law, justice and the role of the courts within that. We then went to the High Court to look at a courtroom and sit in some of the key seats. So how do we measure that one of the pupils who spoke at the celebratory event for parents and pupils has now decided – based on that experience – that he wants to be a Clerk of Court and that law is NOT (his emhpasis) boring? What of the pupil from the Beath and Newbattle workshop I gave last week who came up to me at the end to tell me he wanted to do law but his Dad said law was boring and now he was going home to tell him it was not and he wanted to study it? What about every single workshop I run for school pupils where at least one pupil comes up at the end to ask about studying law? Suddenly, they feel it is something they can aspire to and consider doing. This is not a study in the impact of my individual subject workshops but a glance into the kinds of immeasurable interactions we have with local pupils through our vast widening participation work. There is no room for statistics in reporting that many pupils now see university as a viable option for them where they did not before. How do we measure a feeling? Or an aspiration? There is definitely more work we can do on the wp front and perhaps we could shout more loudly about these individual impacts but in an evidence-based field, where do these interactions sit? They are so important in these pupils’ lives and can often be life-changing.