Widening participation in higher education : an examination of institutional responses
During the past 40 years higher education has moved from an elite to a mass system. Despite this expansion, the working class remain under-represented in HE. They are also disproportionately represented in less prestigious institutions and on lower status courses. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that students from lower SEGs have greater difficulty adapting to university life because of a mismatch between their cultural capital and the middle class culture they encounter in HE. In addition, empirical studies indicate that working class students have less success in the graduate labour market than their middle class peers. As a result of such concerns widening participation has become a key focus of government policy. This research traces government policy on widening participation from Robbins (1963) through Dearing (1997) and to The Future of Higher Education (2003) and the passing of the Higher Education Act in 2004. It then examines how policy migrates from the macro to the HEI level, and then from senior to middle management. The study analyses the way policy is interpreted and developed at each stage of the policy migration process. In particular, the research uses documentary evidence and interviews with key institutional policy makers to try and gain a better understanding of the rationale behind HEI policy on widening participation. The research demonstrates how institutional policy on widening participation develops out of a complex combination of economic and political influences, mediated by the values, beliefs and objectives (i. e. the culture) of HEls. Whilst all institutions face the same economic and political enviromnent, they have different organisational cultures and resources (financial, human, capital, etc.). The implication of this is that institutional responses to widening participation vary. However, the study concludes by identifying a number of general concerns that are felt to be worthy of further consideration by policy makers.