Centre for Teaching and Learning Research (CTLR)

Connecting Research and Practice in Widening Participation:

Exploring (alternative) routes to change

TriangleThis event was hosted by the Centre for Teaching and Learning Research (CTLR) and the Widening Participation teams of the Universities of Sussex and Lancaster.

Date: Thursday 25 July 2019
Venue: The Work Foundation, London

This free one day event brought together academics, practitioners and policy-makers who share a commitment to widening participation and wanted to explore new and/or alternative routes to positive change. Speakers drew on their own experiences to show how a willingness to step outside established norms and roles can open up new understandings of – and alternative routes to - positive change.



Five Unanswered Questions in Widening Participation Revisited
Presented by Dr Neil Harrison, Rees Centre (University of Oxford)

Writing Across Research/Practice Boundaries 
Presented by Chris Bayes (Lancaster University) & Gino Graziano (University of Sussex)

Connecting Theory with Practice Through the University Curriculum
Presented by Dr Louise Gazeley  (CTLR, University of Sussex), Ruth Squire (Sheffield Hallam University), Penny Longman (University College London) & Graham Young (University of Sussex).


Forms of / Routes to Positive Change
Professor Colin McCaig (Sheffield Hallam University), Rosa Marvell (University of Sussex) & Alex Wardrop (Office for Students) set out their responses to the three questions: 

  • What change is needed?
  • How can this best be achieved?
  • What obstacles might need to be overcome? 

Speaker 1 summary: Rosa Marvell, University of Sussex

Postgraduate taught (PGT) education is becoming ever-more important in the UK, yet the trajectories which lead to it have been consistently under-researched, particularly from a widening participation (WP) perspective. As undergraduate cohorts expand, the (graduate) labour market is increasingly competitive and precarious (Waller et al., 2014). Many people, therefore, see PGT as the next ‘logical’ step or response, and are particularly turning towards Master’s programmes. In fact, HESA data shows Master’s enrolment in 2017/18 reached its highest number for several years (334,310, up from 299,110 in 2014/15), perhaps helped in part by the introduction of student finance for postgraduate study (HESA, 2019).

I argue that it is critical that PGT study – and postgraduate education more broadly – is brought into WP conversations, and note that there are instrumental, intellectual and moral imperatives to do so. Moreover, drawing on my narrative life history research with current Master’s students who were part of the first generation of the family to participate in Higher Education, I content that we need a shift in thinking – away from compartmentalised phases of intervention – and a need to consider student trajectories in a far more long-term fashion. Not only does this allow us to better see often-hidden contingencies and tensions which prevent fair access, but it also provokes questions about how we work with (potential) students at all stages of life, the prevailing structure and normative values of our sector and the implications of massification of undergraduate study.

It is important to consider WP and PGT in a way that maintains awareness of future implications, namely the dangers of replicating or intensifying credential inflation or encouraging students to incur additional debt which may not result in anticipated outcomes. However, there is clear evidence that Master’s programmes do open up opportunities for postgraduates and thus PGT must be part of any equity agenda.

Speaker 2 summary: Colin McCaig, Sheffield Hallam University

There are two available routes to change and with good will we can potentially make headway with both of them. Firstly it is important that institutions like Sussex and others offer postgraduate Masters programmes in widening participation studies in order that we develop a critical and theoretical approach to the phenomena, and offer postgraduate routes to WP students that wish to continue into research careers or to become better-informed academics. Equally it is important that academics that work in the field of WP are able and willing to supervise PhDs in this area, and there are surprisingly few of us offering this opportunity.

Secondly, and in my opinion, just as importantly, we as a sector need to continue to develop research and evaluation capabilities and dispositions among those within our institutions and state-funded Consortia (such as NCOPs). Never has it been as important to demonstrate that what we are doing to WP is effective - yet we know that within WP/Outreach teams and within NCOP consortia those responsible for Data and Evaluation are rarely the most important voices: competing pressures to either meet the recruitment needs of institutions or to meet Consortia-wide national targets often place the most emphasis on the delivery of activities and interventions, with way less thought to how to demonstrate they are effective. One way to address this is to create a mandatory postgraduate training certificate/diploma programme for all those that hold 'evaluation' roles. This will not only enhance the evaluative capacity of Outreach teams and give them more 'voice' within such teams, but provide a transferable qualification into other evaluation roles, potentially leading to postgraduate research study.

WP event - pic 1