Higher education systems across the world are undergoing substantial expansion, even if the starting point is in many cases substantially different. However, the general expansion trends puts focus on assuring that this widening participation also reaches under-represented groups. How to assure that widening participation also means fair participation?
HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council in England, has commissioned a new report that examines six national case studies that detail effective approaches to widening participation strategy and practices. The main goal was to identify “what works”, what are some of the identified good practices. The case studies focus on impact and effectiveness through multiple levels – from system level policies of widening participation to institutional level interventions.
Based on the six cases in Australia, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa and the United States of America (USA) the report examined some common systemic factors that influence access and progression. General educational system structure is also linked to progression to higher education. As expected, system stratification in many cases is linked to the socio-economic conditions of the particular area, and one can identify a concentration of high performing schools in more advantaged areas. Furthermore the report indicates that social class is the key determinant of both success in education and access to higher education. This class division is also seen amongst those who do go to higher education in cases where there is a more stratified higher education system. Students from higher socio-economic background tend to attend highly selective institutions with more research oriented profile, whereas those from lower socio-economic background tend to attend institutions with less prestige and more vocational/professional profile. The report suggests that focus on alternative pathways (for instance, accreditation of prior learning, options to progress to HE from vocational education, etc) can facilitate more diverse student participation.