The mysterious death of widening participation?

Patrick Mulrenan, Course Leader for the Community Development and Leadership, questions the message the government is sending out about widening participation.

Date: 03 August 2020

COVID-19 has affected some groups more than others. The young, BAME communities and disadvantaged people have suffered most, albeit in different ways. Which makes it an odd time to attack universities’ widening participation policies, which aim to extend the benefit of Higher Education to these very groups.

Government thinking on widening participation to Higher Education has been made clear in the last couple of months. The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, is sending a ‘strong message- that social mobility isn’t about getting people into university’, arguing that ‘young people have been taken advantage of’ by courses ‘that do nothing to improve their life chances’. The Education Secretary has weighed in, attaching the ‘absurd mantra’ that 50 per cent of young people should attend university. He is promoting a different route for young people with the (clearly not absurd) mantra ‘Further Education, Further Education, Further Education’.

In fact, he started his speech by noting how ‘shocked’ he was that numbers of students in Further Education have been falling. Since 2009/10, funding per student in FE has fallen by 7 per cent. He should really have stern words with whoever has been running the government. 

As any fan of Murder She Wrote knows, every mystery involves means, motive and opportunity. Widening participation is the same: people need the means, motive and opportunity to come to university. The motivation is clearly there; as well as developing citizenship, there is clear evidence that students attending universities leave with a ‘graduate premium’ in terms of their future career and earnings. Many of our students (not just the young ones that Michelle Donelan mentions) have limited means, but still manage to leave with improved prospects. It just seems a shame the government now wants to remove the opportunity to come to university.

Patrick Mulrenan