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Marion Bowl and Jonathan Hughes, Official discourses of ‘fair access’

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John Rose-Adams
9 January 2012

 

To be presented at the Widening Participation Conference 2012 'Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education', 24-25 April 2012
Official discourses of ‘fair access’: What do institutional statements tell us about university stratification, differentiation and market positioning?
Marion Bowl and Jonathan Hughes
This paper interrogates how definitions of widening participation and fair access are changing, in the light of changing government and institutional priorities and following on from the Browne Review (2010) and the Government White Paper: ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (2011). The authors draw on an analysis of OFFA Access Agreements, mission statements and other publicly available material for one region of England to analyse institutional discourses, priorities and rhetoric on fair access across a range of university missions.  We highlight both continuity and change in the way individual universities express their widening participation aspirations and marked differences between universities, based on mission group, location and catchment area. We assess the future prospects for widening participation based on the notion of equal opportunities for all (Schwartz 2004), as opposed to sponsoring social mobility for some via entry to ‘our most selective institutions’ (BIS 2011). 

To be presented at the Widening Participation Conference 2012 'Discourses of Inclusion in Higher Education', 24-25 April 2012

Official discourses of ‘fair access’: What do institutional statements tell us about university stratification, differentiation and market positioning?

Marion Bowl and Jonathan Hughes

This paper interrogates how definitions of widening participation and fair access are changing, in the light of changing government and institutional priorities and following on from the Browne Review (2010) and the Government White Paper: ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (2011). The authors draw on an analysis of OFFA Access Agreements, mission statements and other publicly available material for one region of England to analyse institutional discourses, priorities and rhetoric on fair access across a range of university missions.  We highlight both continuity and change in the way individual universities express their widening participation aspirations and marked differences between universities, based on mission group, location and catchment area. We assess the future prospects for widening participation based on the notion of equal opportunities for all (Schwartz 2004), as opposed to sponsoring social mobility for some via entry to ‘our most selective institutions’ (BIS 2011). 

 

Extra content

Interview with the authors

The research paper you are presenting is titled ‘Official discourses of ‘fair access’: What do institutional statements tell us about university stratification, differentiation and market positioning?’. I’m interested to learn why you chose to pursue this piece of research: Why these issues in particular?

Marion: The idea for this small piece of research and writing arose when I was being interviewed for a piece of research which Jonathan Hughes (my co-author) was conducting for the OU. We were discussing the future of WP in the light of the new coalition government coming into power, the new fees regime etc. I think I suggested that I would be interested to know how universities from different mission groups were positioning themselves in the tension between WP and raising fees.

Jonathan later suggested it might be something we could pursue and we decided to focus on doing a small piece of research together, exploring Access agreements for 2012 and beyond. Since they are documents in the public domain they are easily accessible and amenable to desk-based analysis.  We decided to take a regional approach, looking in some detail at ‘cases’ of different universities, the way they were positioning themselves and how/whether  they were planning to ensure that they worked to widen participation whilst raising fees substantially.  We have therefore been analysing the content and the discourse of Access Agreements.

As we have met over the past few months to pursue this project, we have become increasingly aware that the situation is a dynamic one – we have been trying to track the twists and turns in policy and the reactions of the nine universities we have chosen as our ‘case study universities’. We are seeing differences between the public discourse of universities (what goes in their prospectuses etc.) and the language and content of their access agreements. Finally, we are noting that the divide between ‘selecting’ and ‘recruiting’ universities in relation to Access agreements is perhaps less clear cut than earlier literature suggests – perhaps indicating a change in the way universities are reacting to the market position in which they find themselves.

Jonathan: I think that’s a very good summary, Marion.

The only thing I would add is that our work is also an indication that it is possible to engage in widening participation that is small scale but focused as long as it is done with a good level of awareness about what is going on in the rest of the field. Also with this clear focus is quite possible for individual researchers to act as an ‘observatory’ on these dynamic changes – it’s not always going to be possible for all widening participation research to be large scale.

That’s great. Thanks for such a full answer. You’ve covered some of the other questions I was going to ask in that response, but here’s one final question: Where do you see this research heading in the future? Are there particular themes or strands of the work that you particularly want to follow up on?

Jonathan: At the moment I think our focus is very much on pulling out what the significant themes might be – in order to be able to produce a paper for the conference in April. So Marion and I are dividing up the work and giving ourselves writing deadlines (and hoping that other work doesn’t get in the way too much).

This sort of focus makes it difficult, for me at least, to immediately see where it might take us.

I’m hoping that producing the paper and discussing it at the conference will help us clarify this.

However, I do think that we might be able to take the way that HEIs promote themselves and positions themselves in an increasingly competitive market might be something that we could take forward. It’s also interesting how different stories are told for different audiences. And underlying it all is the fundamental question of what is higher education for. 

John Rose-Adams
12:32 on 20 February 2012 (Edited 12:33 on 20 February 2012)

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