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The Right to Higher Education: A Context For Widening Participation; A Digest

A context is needed to get a sense of the ways in which contemporary discourses of Widening Participation have emerged and have in turn shaped the discourses over who has the right to higher education, and who does not. This has become increasingly associated with the acceptance of the inevitably large amounts of debt after graduation.

The Right to Higher Education Beyond Widening Participation By Penny Jane Burke

Despite the political commitment expressed through numerous international and national policies to widen educational access and participation, we are living in a time of increased, and widening, social and economic inequalities. The Government Equalities office found that the large growth in inequality of the period of the late 1970s to the early 1990s has not been reversed. Professor Penny Jane Burke directs us to the following study:

An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK: Report of the National Equality Panel, Hills et al 2010, Crown Copyright 2010, Government Equalities Office, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion:

“We know that disadvantage can come from your gender or ethnicity; your sexual orientation or your disability; your age or your religion or belief or any combination of these. But overarching and interwoven with this is the persistent inequality of social class – your family background and where you were born. Action to tackle inequality must be based on the most robust and sophisticated analysis of its roots and how it affects people’s lives.


In order to provide that detailed and profound analysis, in 2008, the Government set up the National Equality Panel, chaired by Professor John Hills. This report of the National Equality Panel shows clearly how inequality is cumulative over an individual’s lifetime and is carried from one generation to the next.”

Although women are more likely than men to participate in higher education (but this is highly gendered across different subject areas), women are paid 21 per cent less in terms of median hourly pay for all employees and 13 per cent less than men for those working full time. In terms of ethnicity ‘nearly all minority ethnic groups are less likely to be in paid employment than white British men and women’.

Social background really matters. Although only 7 per cent of the population in Britain attend independent schools, 75 per cent of judges, 70 percent of finance directors, 45 percent of top civil servants and 35 per cent of members of parliament were educated in independent schools. Burke points us at the following source for this information –

Milburn, A. 2009, Unleashing Aspirations: The Final Report of the panel on Fair Access to the Professions. London: The Cabinet Office:

“These inequalities persist. In this Report, we focus, however, on socio-economic inequality. The UK is a highly unequal society. Unfortunately, class background still too often determines life chances. Too many people – from middle-income as well as low-income families – encounter doors that are shut to their talents. The professions, despite many excellent efforts, still exhibit a closed-shop mentality.” (Page 45)


The report points out that increasingly, entry to the professions depends on having a good honours degree, and this is related to the status of the university attended. The increase in vocational qualifications and provision has not necessarily enabled wider access to the professions.

Widening access and participation is largely concerned with redressing the under representation of certain social groups in higher education. However, the concept of Widening Participation is highly contested and there is no single agreed upon definition.

The discourse of ‘expansion’ became increasingly significant over the twentieth century in Britain. The Education Act of 1944, for example, promised to increase the number of students qualified for university participation with concerns to expand the supply of university trained professions. The discourse of expansion became more prominent in the 1963 Robbins Report on Higher Education:

“It is not merely by providing places for students from all classes that this ideal will be achieved, but also by providing, in the atmosphere of the institutions in which the students live and work, influences that in some measure compensate for any inequalities of home background. These influences are not limited to the student population. Universities and colleges have an important role to play in the general cultural life of the communities in which they are situated.”

A key aim of this was to raise the percentage of teh age group receiving full time higher education from about eight per cent to about 17 per cent by 1980. Discourses of managerialism and enterprise crept into higher education policy developments. Charged with review and making recommendations about university management, the 1985 Jarratt Report recommended a raft of measures designed to make universities more effective and efficient through clearer management structures and styles:

Academics Responding to Change: New Higher Education Frameworks and Academic Cultures (Society for Research into Higher Education) 1998 by Paul R. Trowler:

“Rhetorical, financial and political structures were recruited to support the national curriculum by implication involved an attack on the professional position of teachers and a diminution of their power” (Page 48)

In 1986 the Research Assessment Exercise began:

Jacobs Ladder
Jacobs Ladder

David, M., Parry, G., Vignoles, A., Hayward, G., Williams, J., Crozier, G., Hockings, C. and Fuller, A. (2009) Widening Participation in Higher Education – A Commentary by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. London: Teaching and Learning Research Programme, ESRC –

“The working class students in our study expressed pride in their class identities and in their own achievements, given the struggle against hardship and structural inequalities they had experienced to get to university. They were aware of and had experienced class prejudice as well as prejudice relating to race and gender. They expressed a sense of difference and not fitting in, but also asserted that they were not prepared to accept that this makes them inadequate or inferior.” (Page 17)


This article is a digest of Page 11 – 17, The Right to Higher Education: Beyond Widening Participation By Penny Jane Burke, published by Routledge, 2013, ISBN: 1136450963. It has been brought together to help provide a bit of background information and context to the Widening Participation policies and agendas which the Ragged University project will be examining in detail

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