What people think of as widening participation policy has traditionally been officially place-blind. Indeed, a lot of historic activity in this space has been about discouraging a subset of school leavers from applying to their local college or university in favour of a more prestigious option.
Yet much of the practice of widening participation is concerned with place. “Lower tariff” institutions have historically had a much larger proportion of their student body from their local area, shaping the character and demographics of their student intake accordingly. Across the UK universities are held accountable for the numbers of students they recruit from low-participation or deprived postcodes – but without significant reference to the advantages or disadvantages they have of proximity to those postcodes, or the situation of those postcodes or areas in their wider geographical context.
Likewise, policy that is attentive to place and the extent to which places are equipped to thrive and have access to the skills needed for investment and new business is notionally agnostic about the social background of those acquiring or mobilising those skills. But it’s obvious that “upskilling and reskilling”, in the language of economic regeneration, in practice means extending participation in higher-level education. To bring the policy analysis and practice of both together, explicitly, could be very powerful.
The need for a conversation about this has been recently highlighted by a National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) report into progression to higher education in England among young people in receipt of free school meals. The analysis highlights geographical disparities in progression – particularly apparent when you compare London with the rest of the country. This table from the report sums it up – you can see that growth in participation has been faster in many areas than in London over the decade analysed, but while London now enjoys close to 50 per cent HE participation among those entitled to free school meals, nowhere else reaches even 30 per cent.
It’s quite likely that some of the underpinning drivers for lower participation outside London are similar to those that are producing data that suggests that the economic returns to graduates outside London are lower as well. While this doesn’t mean that going to higher education isn’t in most cases a sound economic bet, it does suggest that for those who are more tied to their place, economically, culturally, or dispositionally, the choice architecture is different, especially if there aren’t many local options available.
There’s an underlying frustration in the report that, in the words of NEON director Graeme Atherton, “political support for access has waned.” This view might be extended further to suggest that political support for increasing participation in HE has waned. Up until the 2010 general election the expansion of access to higher education in one way or another was a standard promise in all the main Westminster party manifestos. Now expansion remains a government policy agenda in the form of the Lifelong Learning Entitlement but there does not seem to be much interest in presenting the policy in those terms. If anything, higher education participation is presented in public discourse as something to be managed and contained rather than extended.
The NEON report recommends that the Westminster government renews focus on progression to HE among those eligible for free school meals incorporating a place-based flavour – for example through inclusion of HE progression in Local Skills Improvement Plans or the future equivalent. This makes good political sense – if “place” is likely to continue to be a powerful policy lens and “access” less so, then those keen on advancing the causes of educational opportunity and social mobility may find it helpful to engage more closely with the data and narratives driving devolution and regional regeneration agendas.
Place and opportunity
But in addition to political pragmatism there is a values-based rationale for bringing these agendas more closely in line in terms of drawing more explicit connections between educational opportunities, employment opportunities, and the wider culture of a place – and the contribution that institutions make to places as institutions housing people, ideas, and activity, as well as providers of skills.
Economic regeneration couched in the language of skills, investment and infrastructure doesn’t take sufficient account at the macro/national policy level of facilitating the aspirations of different individuals some of whom might realise their potential through reskilling for a particular job path, and some of whom might contribute to their place through developing their creative practice, or applying their higher level skills in service of their community. And the application of the thinking that informs widening participation practice could helpfully inform assessment of the available pathways into higher education in a place, the information and advice on offer, the scale of demand and the breadth and diversity of options available to address that demand, and the practical implications for access in terms of local infrastructure like public transport.
I think that a lot of this analysis happens organically or intentionally in local and regional conversations in any case – so there is much to be learned from parts of the country where the conversation around the economic and cultural needs of a place and education access are well developed and mature.
But there’s also quite a lot to retain about the way contemporary access policy is evolving, even if as an agenda it’s not the political flavour of the moment. If you’re doing OfS’ Equality of Opportunity Risk Register right, the assessment of risks around student journey and characteristic, and the theories of change that underpin the proposed interventions, will be contextualised in places and their demographic makeup, their industries and skills needs, and their local cultures – both the place of your institution and your local students, and the places your students have come from.
An approach is emerging in Scotland where as part of outcome agreements, Scottish institutions are asked to set out their efforts to ensure “coherent” learning provision, informed by local, regional and national partnerships focused on specific skills needs. This kind of thinking is also what has seen the Scottish Funding Council play a role in bringing together higher education providers with regional stakeholders and employers to map and develop the education provision on offer. There is also student journey mapping going on, which aims to ensure that there are meaningful pathways available through different providers and into particular curriculum areas.
To scale something like this for a larger and more diverse sector in England would require more substantial political devolution – which is of course not out of the question. Former Labour Secretary of State John Denham and New Local think tank deputy chief executive Jessica Studdert have recently called for place-based public service budgets, for example. It’s not a great leap from there to an evolution of something like a Local (maybe regional) Skills Improvement Plan that actively commissions or otherwise incentivises new or reimagined HE provision and possible student pathways.
But in the absence of a radical devolution of powers and budgets the practical alignment of place and widening participation in higher education will come down, as it has been, to effective partnership working between the various HE providers in a given place, and local stakeholders. A national conversation that made explicit the synergies between place and widening access to HE would make that work a bit easier. Some further thought given to the development of a policy framework that would drive both forward in tandem would be a useful contribution to the pre general election debate.