Widening Participation and the Equality of Opportunity

Widening participation has long been a pillar of higher education policy in countries across the world. From Ireland and the UK to the US and Australia, Widening Participation strategies aim to increase access to learning and education, particularly for those from underrepresented groups at Higher Education Institutions (HEI).

What are ‘Widening Participation Strategies’?

Widening participation strategies are the methods used to increase access to education and opportunities for students. These strategies occur on multiple levels to ensure the best outcomes for students. Governments in countries such as UK, US and Australia issue regulations regarding HEI’s admissions procedures and graduate outcomes to ensure Universities and Colleges are paying due attention to widening participation.

Governments also provide support and encouragement in the form of funding to both students and HEI’s. This can support a student in attending HE or allow a HEI to allocate suitable resources towards widening participation goals.

Aside from Government regulation and assistance, Higher Education Institutions have their own responsibility to implement widening participation strategies. HEI’s should operate with an ‘equality of opportunity’ policy to ensure they are promoting student access, student support and ultimately, student success.

Who do these strategies help?

  • Students from a low-income background.
  • Students who are first in family to attend a HEI.
  • Students with a disability.
  • Students who have lived in care.
  • Students who are care givers.
  • Students from a minority ethnic background.
  • Students who are LGBTQ+.

Why are these strategies so important for students?

For many students from disadvantaged backgrounds, widening participation strategies are crucial in allowing them to access and succeed in higher education. The specific needs of underrepresented students can range from financial support to emotional support and encouragement, and can only be met through a continuously proactive approach from higher education institutions. This proactive approach should focus on student attendance, retention, wellbeing and success.

Students attendance in higher education

How can HEI’s support ‘Widening Participation’?

Universities and Colleges play one of the most important roles in widening participation as they can directly influence student access to education, student support within education and student success from education. Before attending HE, widening participation assistance can come in the form of Scholarships, Grants and Bursaries offered by HEI’s. Potential students should find it easy to access support and information regarding available courses and application processes.

Once students have applied, HEI’s should aim to immediately identify and reach out to underrepresented or at-risk students to assist in their adjustment to HE and to ensure they are aware of the supports available to them.

During the education experience, it is important for higher education institutions to employ a student-centered approach to teaching and learning where student wellbeing and success is the priority. HEI’s should implement effective engagement, attendance and progress monitoring to improve student’s academic outcomes and to provide opportunity for early interventions. The power of technology allows HEI’s to easily keep track of student KPI’s and provide personalised learning experiences that promote student success.

Why are these strategies important for HEI’s?

Focusing on widening participation can have many benefits for higher education institutions. Firstly, low participation and graduate rates among underrepresented groups can have financial and reputational implications for higher education institutions. HEI’s should be aiming to promote diversity, which includes supporting students from a range of different backgrounds. By monitoring student engagement, attendance and wellbeing, HEI’s can:

  • Build a culture of attendance and engagement among their academic community.  
  • Improve student retention rates including continuity and completion rates. 
  • Improve student wellbeing and overall student experience at your higher education institution.  

Conclusion

A HEI which prioritizes widening participation is a HEI which improves their application numbers, student retention and success rates, and student academic outcomes. HEI’s should make promoting diversity, inclusivity and equal opportunity an Institution-wide policy with the help of modern technologies aimed at achieving these outcomes.

For best practice on Widening Participation in Higher Education see how Kingston University have used attendance, engagement and retention software to increase student support and access, here.

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