By Dr Emily Danvers and Tamsin Hinton-Smith (Sussex Learning Network, NCOP)

Work to widen access to higher education has made great achievements in shaping our universities as places where students from diverse backgrounds can succeed. But important work remains to be done. Students from the poorest backgrounds still remain far less likely than their privileged peers to go to university and particularly to more elite institutions (Boliver, 2013). The latest figures reveal that, despite millions of pounds of funding invested in initiatives to widen participation, in some areas of the UK, only 11% of young people progress on to higher education (HESA, 2018). While those of us researching and working in widening participation need to congratulate ourselves for our successes, we also need to ask tough question of ourselves about what is working and for whom. These include:

The HEFCE funded National Collaborative Outreach (NCOP) Programme is the latest government initiative in England tasked with addressing some of these issues. One of its aims is to double the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds entering higher education by 2020. Attention is focused on postcodes where the participation of young people is lower than expected given their GCSE attainment. We, in the Sussex Learning Network, are funded by NCOP to co-ordinate a network of projects run by universities, colleges, schools and community organisations to support targeted young people from specific postcodes to access university or higher level apprenticeships.

We believe that a postcode should not determine a young person’s educational trajectory. We also know that a young person is far more than their postcode, and their identities and experiences are complex. For example, in a focus group with 14 year olds in a local school, one remarked ‘I’m from a poor area and I want to go to university…it’s a bit of a stereotype to say we won’t’. These young people, on the whole, knew the additional challenges they faced and know that to overcome it would take more than a simple solution.

We, as researchers of higher educational inequalities and evaluators of the NCOP work within Sussex, believe part of addressing the complex reasons why disadvantaged young people are less likely to attend higher education lies in collaboration. Universities have a great deal to learn from schools, community groups, parents and young people themselves about what is important in addressing the challenges faced to achieving their educational goals. In addition, universities have an important role in contributing to knowledge sharing and in capacity building of others. Widening participation requires a strong foundation of an equal and connected triangle between research, policy and practice.

A couple of ways we are developing this within the Sussex Learning Network NCOP (SLN-COP) work include training young people to research their own lives and design their own widening participation activities, which we will present to our regional universities. We are also developing the research skills of colleagues working in colleges, schools and community groups in order that they are empowered to engage in high quality and evidence informed practice.

We believe that the innovative and important focus of collaboration emphasised by NCOP is a crucial step forward in capitalising on the wealth of expertise to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education. This is about closing the loop between research and practice to ensure widening participation is not done ‘to’ but produced ‘with’ those who are targeted as disadvantaged.


Boliver, V. (2013). How fair is access to more prestigious UK universities? The British Journal of Sociology 64(2), pp.344-364.

HESA (2018). Widening participation summary: UK Performance Indicators 2016/17. [Accessed 5th March 2018]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.