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Widening Participation: Power, Knowledge and Silence; A Digest

Critical theoretical frameworks are particularly helpful in developing a conceptual framework of widening participation which is capable of addressing the complexities, misrecognitions and exclusions that play out in educational fields such as colleges and universities.

Continuities in wider participation have included struggles over access for particular social and cultural groups, notions of meritocracy and liberalism, concerns with fairness and social justice and attention to patterns of social exclusion and mobility.

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

Discontinuities include a shift in focus from social groups to individuals, from education to training, from concerns for women’s access to higher education to a concern with men’s, from publicly governed and funded education to quasi markets, private forms of funding and entrepreneurialism, and from concerns with the development of disciplinary, subject based knowledge to concerns with skills development, employability and the commodification of knowledge.

Professor Penny Jane Burke holds the view that it should not be assumed that all young people deemed to have the potential to benefit form higher education should go straight on from school to university. She feels that there are other forms of learning, some non-formal, which are as important and profound – sometimes more so – as higher education.

Higher education is a social institution where life chances and privileges are reproduced, and certain groups continue to be significantly underrepresented and are excluded from opportunities and social privileges. This includes attention to the ways in which higher education carries social esteem to the detriment of other forms of learning experience.

Pierre Bourdieu is one of the most famout of many thinkers and commentators on this area of inequality of opportunity perpetuated through institutional forms such as education.  Life chances and social privileges should not depend on the chance to participate in higher education or not and we must interrogate assumptions that higher education is the gold standard for those with ‘high levels of potential and ability’.

Susan Brown at the University of Manchester introduces a keen observation in her use of the phrase Elite Meritocracy.  The rhetoric of ‘our brightest and best’ gives rise to a whole self determining inequality by diverting resources and attention to those who are succeeding rather than distributing supported opportunity which is the condition necessary for ‘success’.  Our culture continues to privilege those who are privileged by happenstance and circumstance, creating an underclass of individuals who have been set aside for a scheme of hot housing borne of a clumsy utilitarianism.

Through increasing targets for participation in higher education there are significant implications for non-participation which exacerbate exclusion and inequalities for those who do not have access to the most esteemed forms of learning and educational institutions. In the broader cultural context, highly skilled, capable, intelligent people and communities are set aside in favour of diverting resources and preference towards more ‘established orthodoxy’, which is represented by the stereotypical institutions such as universities.

In plain language, knowledge and meaning making outside of the hierarchical formal structures is rarely ever given cultural sanction by the ruling structures, and therefore left to dwindle in a silence of proportion. A ‘silence of proportion’ refers to a situation where the sheer dominance by presence happens without necessarily a conspired attempt to undermine the smaller – yet equally valid – presence.

In example, if there are twenty people in a room and they are asked to share their thoughts on what the answer is to a question; 19 of them are from one school of thought, and 1 is from outside that school of thought, proportionally the representation of that situationally less represented perspective is in danger of getting lost in a ‘silence of proportion’.  A child in a room full of adults is a typical example of a silence of proportion.

Binaries and divisions, such as between academic and vocational, knowledge and skill, higher and further, become more significant as access to the life chances of the individual. We must develop the critical tools to reveal underlying assumptions behind access to, and participation in, higher education and society as well as the ways in which inequalities might be sustained, reformulated and reproduced through such assumptions within material and structural contexts of social inequalities.

social justice

Prof Burke suggests that a project of widening participation is necessarily a project of social justice. The emphasis on widening, rather than simply increasing, access to, and participation in, higher education places focus on those groups who have been traditionally excluded or under(mis)-represented in higher education.

As well as identifying patterns of underrepresentation, it is important to develop sophisticated, theorized and critical approaches, which depend on long term strategies embedded in deep level understandings of the subtle and insidious operations of classed, gendered and racialized inequalities in higher education – and education and learning more generally. Critical and feminist theories of education have pointed out that education is never neutral but is always a site of struggle over meaning making and knowledge.


“the task is to construct classroom relations that engender fresh confrontation with value and meaning – not to demonstrate to students their ignorance in what Freire (1973) terms the ‘banking concept of education’ “

(Lather, P., 1991, Getting Smart: Feminist Research and Pedagogy Within the Postmodern New York and London: Routledge)

“Many of the readers of this book could undoubtedly point to similar personal experiences in the politics of race, gender, sexuality, class, “ability,” and other spheres of social life. Or less visible but no less political instances of the constant daily struggles in classrooms, lecturehalls, schools and other institutions, communities, and elsewhere to build an education worthy of its name.”

(Page xv, Torres, C. A. 1998, Education, Power and Personal Bibliography: Dialogues with Critical Educators. London and New York: Routledge)


Universities are significant institutional sites of the legitimization of certain forms of knowledge and identity. Exclusion from higher education has implications not only for individuals but also for the wider differential positioning of social groups in society; it also has profound influences on the participation of knowledge production and the processes by which different forms of knowledge are legitimated.

To arrive at an understanding of exclusion and inequality in higher education, it is of great importance to develop an understanding of power, across between and within educational and social fields. Widening participation policy has been largely shaped by neoliberal perspectives which tend to prioritize and emphasize the importance of higher educational participation in relation to economic imperatives, orientations and concerns. These economic perspectives give rise to many fallacies of ideology.

Discourses of meritocracy have dominated emphasizing issues of “fair access” and the idea of an openness of the university to all who have the potential and ability to participate. Examination of power and difference seems to have been reframed as a discourse of social inclusion situated within economically centred and meritocratic views.

Engagement with issues of power is missing from the discourse. Louise Archer explains that the hegemonic view of inclusion expressed in widening participation policy aims to include those who are excluded into the dominant framework/state of being, rather than challenging existing inequalities within the mainstream system, or encouraging alternative ways of being.


“For those who were above a particular social level….the universities could be an instrument for social mobility.  But, at the same time, the universities created and reinforced the social division between those eligible and those below this level, who were ineligible.  ‘The universities, in confirming their attention to the powerful few aroused the hostility of the excluded majority'”

(Page 23 Alistair Ross ‘Higher education and Social Access: to the Robbins Report’ in L. Archer, M Hutchings, and A. Ross (eds) Higher Education and Social Class: Issues of Exclusion and Inclusion. London: Routledge Falmer)


higher education and money

“Identities and inequalities of social class, ‘race’ and gender structure the resources and capital (cultural, economic and social) available to working-class groups which, in turn, mediates their potential, and likelihood, of their participation in higher education”

(Page 175, Archer, L., Leathwood, C., (2003) ‘Identities, Inequalities and Higher Education in L. Archer, M. Hutchings and A. Ross. (eds) Higher Education and Social Class: Issues of Exclusion and Inclusions. London: Routledge Falmer, 17 -91)


At this juncture, it is wise to pick apart the language of social class used here, as it has so often been used to create polarized rhetoric.  Rightly or wrongly, I am choosing to identify the use of the term ‘social class’ in reference to the spectrum of poverty, as in not having the money “to engage in common social activities such as visiting friends and family, having celebrations on special occasions or attending weddings and funerals”.  I am keen to focus on the aspect of being logistically challenged rather than getting caught up in the turgid (and potentially dangerous) idea of cultural class, which I feel is more fitting as a subset of group psychology.

For me, possibly George Orwell expresses well an aspect of my experience of being broke in his book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’: “This put an end to my plans of looking for work. I had now got to live at the rate of about six francs a day, and from the start it was too difficult to leave much thought for anything else. It was now that my experiences of poverty began—for six francs a day, if not actual poverty, is on the fringe of it. Six francs is a shilling, and you can live on a shilling a day in Paris if you know how. But it is a complicated business.

It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty. You have thought so much about poverty—it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it, is all so utterly and prosaically different. You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring.

George Orwell
George Orwell

It is the peculiar LOWNESS of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping. You discover, for instance, the secrecy attaching to poverty. At a sudden stroke you have been reduced to an income of six francs a day. But of course you dare not admit it—you have got to pretend that you are living quite as usual. From the start it tangles you in a net of lies, and even with the lies you can hardly manage it.

You stop sending clothes to the laundry, and the laundress catches you in the street and asks you why; you mumble something, and she, thinking you are sending the clothes elsewhere, is your enemy for life. The tobacconist keeps asking why you have cut down your smoking. There are letters you want to answer, and cannot, because stamps are too expensive. And then there are your meals— meals are the worst difficulty of all. Every day at meal-times you go out, ostensibly to a restaurant, and loaf an hour in the Luxembourg Gardens, watching the pigeons.”

(Page 17, George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933)

Burke discusses Social inclusion discourses as hegemonic.  Hegemony refers to an indirect form of government and of imperial dominance in which the leader rules the subordinate by the implied means of power. In terms of this ‘Leadership Rule’ (Hegemony) a critical perspective asserts the significance of theorizing inclusion and diversity in relation to concepts of power and difference.

Jenny Williams describes ‘polarising discourses’ surrounding education policy which promote binaries which represent a double bind for those thinking about broaching the status quo from out with it: being ‘included’ implies the opposite, being ‘excluded’. Being ‘excluded’ has implications for the formation of identity, for the ways that the person (or group of people) is seen and positioned by others and institutional categorizations, which frame possibilities for participation.

Certain value judgements are integrated in these framings against the cultural backdrop of the policy (i.e. the marketisation focus of neoliberalization): if a person decides not to participate in higher education but has the standard qualifications and/or perceived potential and ability, that person is constructed as a “problem”, or as having “low aspirations”.

The value judgement that higher education is the ‘best choice’ for all those deemed to be potential Higher Education students has deep implications for assumptions about inclusion and exclusion, as well as ways in which certain learning trajectories are recognized as superior to others.

The ‘problem’ is re-located to the individual or communities who are seen themselves as the ‘problem’, and this is often understood in deeply classist or racist ways and certainly in terms of the ways those individuals or groups are seen to be ‘lacking’ e.g. the ‘right’ kinds of attitudes, values and/or aspirations.

The problem of who participates in higher education and who does not has largely been constructed through research that draws on statistics and benchmarks to measure patterns of Higher Education participation of different social groups. This has helped to expose historic exclusions and inequalities as well as to make arguments for change and strategic intervention.

The contribution of such forms of research has been important in recognizing that there is a significant problem that requires serious attention, concern and strategy at the level of research, policy and practice. In asking questions about who participates in higher education, institutionalized categorizations of difference are constructed and re-constructed. In asking these questions, it is inevitable to question the effects of such technologies of classification. It is important to consider the ways in which classifications homogenize groups of people.

Classifications are useful in offering statisticians and policy makers variables to produce data sets and then to analyze them, thus providing some of the tools in which to formulate policy. They are simultaneously problematic in the constructions that they produce and reproduce.

The way we construct the language and meaning we use to have conversations about questions of education, access and participation carries with it constraints about the ways we are able to think about what these questions involve.

Foucault suggests that power is not only always tied to knowledge but is produced through the discourses that shape the ways in which we know. Power is not something to be redistributed or given to those who don’t have it. Power is exercised, disciplinary, relational and tied to the formation of the person, or subject.


Power circulates everywhere, is unpredictable, shifting, generative and regulatory. This conceptualization of power destabilises binary notions of the oppressor/oppressed, advantaged/disadvantaged, agency/structure, which have profoundly shaped policy discourses of widening educational participation.

Foucault said of his work: “Thus it is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research. It is true that I became quite involved with the question of power. It soon appeared to me that, while the human subject is placed in relations of production and of signification, he is equally placed in power relations which are very complex.

Now, it seemed to me that economic history and theory provided a good instrument for relations of production; that linguistics and semiotics offered instruments for studying relations of signification; but for power relations we had no tools of study.

We had re­course only to ways of thinking about power based on legal models, that is: What legitimates power? Or we had recourse to ways of thinking about power based on institutional models, that is: What is the state? It was therefore necessary to expand the dimensions of a definition of power if one wanted to use this definition in studying the objectivizing of the subject.”

(Page 209, Foucault, M., The Subject and Power; afterword in H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow (eds) Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd edn) Chicago Il: University of Chicago)


Understanding power as nominal, and as a multivalent concept which includes being simultaneously relational, discursive, productive, regulatory and constraining is useful for thinking through the complexities in sites of education, and meaning making. Critical theories remain important in addressing material and structural inequalities such as poverty, availability of resources and opportunities.

Justice Interruptus

Penny Jane Burke suggests that Nancy Fraser offers an important framework that allows us to conceptualize issues of social justice in her book ‘Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the Post Socialist Condition’. In this framework she presents two key forms of injustice for analysis.

The first is socio economic injustice which requires a politics of redistribution regardless of background; for example, making sure all students/learners have equal access to educational resources such as books and lecture materials, as well as clear advice, information and guidance – regardless of background.

The second form is cultural or symbolic injustice, which looks at cultural differences and requires a politics of recognition of ontological value. For example understanding and acknowledging that literacy practices or ontological dispositions (formal frameworks for representing knowledge) are differently valued.

“A critical approach must be ‘bivalent,’ in contrast, integrating the social and the cultural, the economic and the discursive. This means exposing the limitations of fashionable neostructuralist models of discourse analysis that dissociate ‘the symbolic order’ from the political economy. It requires cultivating in their stead alternative models that connect the study of signification to institutions and social structures. Finally, it means connecting the theory of cultural justice with the theory of distributive justice.”

(Page 5, Fraser, N (1997) Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the ‘Post socialist’ Condition. London and New York: Routledge)

In contemplating widening participation policy and practice, Prof Burke suggests it is important to develop a theoretical framework that enables the destabilization of regimes of truth, which constitute subjects through symbolic and discursive recognitions and misrecognitions.

Pierre Bourdieu has developed a particularly compelling and sophisticated language for thinking through power in multivalent ways allowing us to explore how material and cultural differences also become embodied dispositions or ‘habitus’. Bourdieu argues that the dominant groups in society have the power to impose meanings and to render these as legitimate.

Foucault’s conceptualization of power destabilizes simplistic binary notions of the oppressor and the oppressed, the advantaged and the disadvantaged, of agency and structure, which has shaped discourses, and ultimately the way we approach complex situations.

Burke argues that such perspectives lock us into ways of thinking which reproduce rather than challenge the status quo and the way we act on encountering inequities. She suggests that developing an understanding of power as relational, discursive, productive whilst simultaneously regulatory and constraining is useful for thinking through the complexities of inequalities. This approach unsettles discourses built upon black and white distinctions which lead to obfuscating assumptions about class, ethnicity, gender, race and sexuality.

Finding critical ways of analyzing inequalities in sites of education and struggles for access to meaning-making, is important for us to develop clear, practical approaches to addressing material and structural disparities such as poverty and the resources available to some groups/individuals, but not others.

Widening participation strategies have tended to focus on socio economic injustices through identifying material barriers and attempting to remove these. She reports that these strategies have made these cultural injustices worse through the misrecognition of those constructed as excluded and/or lacking in aspirations, experience and knowledge.

Burke proposes that it is important to create ways in which “regimes of truth” are destabilized, suggesting that these constitute subjects that it is of equal importance to recognize the impact of material inequalities and groups supporting the persistence of particular social inequalities across intersections of class, gender and race.


This article is a digest of Re/conceptualising Widening participation, pages 33 – 39, 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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