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Widening participation matters too much for Covid-19 to shut it down

A punk-DIY ethic is needed if we're not to lose what's been achieved in HE participation, says Anne-Marie Canning.
This article is more than 4 years old

Anne-Marie Canning is chief executive ofThe Brilliant Club.

Need a reason to be cheerful this Monday morning? Let’s remind ourselves that today HE participation rates stand at all time high in the UK.

Participation leapt in the early nineties with the expansion of the higher education sector. In the years of the Labour government outreach initiatives such as Aimhigher contributed to a steady narrowing of the gap. And in the last decade the removal of the cap on student numbers opened up further opportunities.

Though serious participation inequalities remain in geography, gender, ethnicity and age, it is a fact that poorer children are more likely to make it to university now than ever before. In the past decade we have also seen a closing of the attainment gap for pupils from poorer backgrounds by ten per cent.

These improvements in attainment and access have been hard won by schools, universities, teachers, widening participation practitioners, and pupils themselves. Many of you reading this piece today are a human testament to these abstract figures.

We are the ones who were given a chance to flourish in higher education. We owe it to the next generation to ensure progress in widening participation is not lost in the face of Covid-19.

The need is greater than ever

Pandemics exacerbate inequalities in all their shapes and forms. Covid-19 will compound the educational disparities that drive unequal higher education participation. However, this pandemic has also made visible the material poverty that pupils, students and their families face. It has shone a bright light on the disadvantages that have held our learners back.

Food poverty and digital exclusion are now a part of daily public discourse in a way that they have never been before. Many of the young people we seek to support are the children of key workers. Many of the mature learners we reach out to are the key workers keeping the country running. Though the future is murky right now, we’re learning so much about what people need from higher education and what they might need in the years to come.

The pandemic will lead to a recession. I believe this recession will be different to the 2008 banking crisis. Kate Pickett, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York and co-author of The Spirit Level, wrote recently that human impact and wellbeing will take priority in shaping the societal response this time round.

Both from an economic and wellbeing perspective investment in education is a no-brainer in policy terms. It might not be exactly what the higher education sector has had in the past, and it might take new thinking about how to create the most meaningful opportunities for people. But the need to offer pathways to transformation will be there, and universities will still be essential to meeting that need.

A punk-DIY ethic

Though Covid-19 threatens widening participation it is not insurmountable and with lateral thinking and determination we can protect progression to higher education.

For the next few months widening participation work may feel unfamiliar. It will, rightly, be messier and more responsive. Some universities have played a vital role in the emergency phase of Covid-19. Lancaster University has partnered with Stagecoach to drive Wi-Fi buses out to broadband cold spots. They have teamed up with Wilkos to deliver stationery packs to homes without pens and paper.

In Bradford, where I chair the Department for Education’s Opportunity Area, local mums are delivering lessons on wheels alongside meals on wheels. My own charity, The Brilliant Club, has made available free open access masterclasses with our PhD tutors on our YouTube channel and published a rapid review of digital inclusion practices. Teachers across the country have worked hard to pivot to online teaching and telephone support for pupils and families.

But when the summer break arrives universities should pick up the baton. We simply cannot afford to lose this summer. The activities that take place in July and August tend to be the highest impact widening participation initiatives. Summer schools and other holiday interventions should be re-imagined. We should not cancel activities but re-tool them. The widening participation sector, both universities and charities, should focus on delivering quality virtual academic experiences that create communities of learners and meaningful educational outcomes.

Many of us have long held aspirations to take our outreach online and now is the time to make it happen. Constraints breed creativity. Work in partnership. Put programme before platform. Pool resources (I have 500 fully trained PhD tutors on the bench right now). It won’t be perfect but who said it has to be? A punk-DIY ethic will see us through. We’re all learning as we go. Don’t let a lack of perfection paralyse action this summer.

As universities face stormy weather and strategic financial management puts widening participation budgets under threat, widening participation practitioners will need to be prepared to make the case within and outside institutions.

Here it is: we know from the work of Professor Raj Chetty at Harvard University that social mobility and educational opportunity can deliver major productivity gains. Widening participation will help to accelerate the recovery of our higher education institutions, the educational ecosystem and broader society. And that’s why widening participation should be a key part of building our new future post-pandemic.

9 responses to “Widening participation matters too much for Covid-19 to shut it down

  1. Fabulous, I have always admired how you lead the line; it’s great to hear your voice still reaches in your new role. Thank you.

  2. Anne-Marie
    Coming up from an estate myself, I applaud your work. As vital as the NHS and invisible to most.
    If you need help at the Brilliant Club, just holler. Ex-HE creative also on the sidelines.

  3. Thanks, I appreciate the punk ethic. At University of Kent we run an annual residential (2 nights) for autistic students – this is unlikely this summer – we would really like to create some links to online alternatives that will enable us to provide induction for new students.

    I don’t believe Zoom meetings will work for students who don’t know each other so I am seeking more interactive solutions, games, creative activities, but don’t yet know what these will be!

  4. While there will be near universal agreement that widening participation should continue to go forward, the problem is implementation. Brilliant Club’s turnover is just over £6m with donations accounting for in the region of 2/3rds of income. To date it has had a sustainable growth plan with sufficient working capital and reserves but there is no emergency fund to cope with anything close to the magnitude of the pandemic. The losses that Universities face are truly horrific over the next 2-3 years and the recession that is coming will be on a different scale even to 2008. Brilliant Club like the rest of the sector faces a battle for survival. We do owe it to future cohorts to be there for them. But while optimism has its place the bare facts have to be faced – unless organisations adjust to reality they will simply cease to exist.

  5. Punk DIY ethic is a perfect way to describe the approach I’ve been trying to take- love it!

  6. Great piece, Anne-Marie thank you. You are so right about the Punk DIY approach – we need to evolve quickly with a “can-do” ethic. Young people are used to seeing content that is less than perfect, they need responsiveness and relevance more than perfection. Look forward to working with you again with your new hat on.

  7. Thank you Anne Marie, clear articulation of the approach the sector needs to consider. Hugely impressed by Lancaster’s response by getting the bus out to the WiFi cold spot- hats off to whoever came up with that solution!

  8. Agree completely with this. There are a remarkable number of calls on universities, in particular, to do things – things which universities in normal times would love to do – but there seems to be little recognition that many if not all universities will be facing serious financial challenges. Their priority will be current, fee-paying students. Some realism is going to be crucial if we’re going to keep this work going, in all the new and creative ways we can think of

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