Five university students chatting in a corridor

 by Rachel Brookes
, posted On 7 Mar '22
 Widening Participation Officer at Harper Adams University

What is university widening participation and fair access?

When you hear the term ‘Widening Participation’ or ‘WP’ for short, it vaguely speaks for itself, but there is a lot more to the widening of participation into higher education.

In a nutshell, WP focuses on underrepresented groups of society that either won’t or don’t want to go on to higher education. The reasons could be purely down to a lack of knowledge and support, but also, unfortunately, because of the stigma attached to that characteristic, either by society or personally.

Fair Access on the other hand, is the fairness attributed to the admissions process for someone accessing higher education.

Who are university widening participation programmes for?

You may have already worked with WP teams at various universities and be aware of some WP characteristics. It is important to know these characteristics, to ensure that no student misses out on opportunities or potential support. Understanding WP and having conversations with higher education institutions could help to uncover an underrepresented student within your school or college. A well-known group that WP focuses on are students in receipt of free school meals, usually from a low income family and with a low socioeconomic status.

Young people that live in disadvantaged areas are five to six times less likely to progress to higher education than those that live in the more advantaged areas (UCAS, End of Cycle Report, 2018), so it is no wonder these groups are targeted within WP schemes.

The lesser-known underrepresented groups (all showing a lower participation rate to higher education) are those from minority ethnic groups, mature students, disabled students and anyone that is care experienced/a care leaver. There are also groups which have similar equality gaps and are therefore defined as underrepresented, including carers, estranged students, travellers, refugees and service children.

What kind of university widening participation or fair access schemes are available?

So, what is in place at universities to ensure that these underrepresented groups get the extra support they need to access university?

Perhaps the most important thing to note here, is something called the ‘Access and Participation Plan’ (APP). Monitored by the Office for Students, these plans set up how universities will improve equality in not only accessing university through outreach targets, but also adhering to success and progress throughout their university journey.

How can schools and college colleagues take part in university widening participation programmes?

Every university differs in their approach and their targets, but their outreach offerings for underrepresented groups will always include Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) sessions, course specific workshops (now both in person and virtually), campus visits, experience days, open days and project-based events. Universities will have their own fair access admissions opportunities too, such as contextualised offers and various accessible programmes if entry requirements or work experience criteria aren’t met.

Every university that has an APP will have a dedicated person or team to deliver the WP and fair access agenda. There will be specific programmes and events for certain students identified, which is why it is important for you to discover these students so that any barriers they may find in accessing university can hopefully be removed by WP teams.

Get in touch

I would encourage anyone to contact university WP and Access teams to ask about engagement opportunities and be sure to sign up to any newsletters to remain up to date. We are here to provide your students with the best advice to break down those barriers and to start the journey in accessing higher education, so use us!



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Editorial has been provided by over 35 colleagues at universities and higher education institutions throughout the UK. On topics covering how to support students with their university decisions, university events, widening participation & fair access, UCAS applications (including writing school references) and more. It also includes the key student finance facts from Martin Lewis.


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