Equal Opportunities: Widening Participation (CertTHE Outcome 5)

The Government’s aim is to increase participation in higher education towards 50% of those aged 18-30, by the end of the decade. Also, to make significant progress year on year towards fair access, and to bear down on rates of non-completion (DfES 2004)

It has been argued (Gibbs, 2002) that the impetus towards Foundation Degrees does not actually widen participation but simply allows the government to leave “intact its rationed academic provision whilst giving an impression of access…” (p201) An “impression of access?” This essay and the portfolio, passim, go some way to showing that a concern for the academic standards of FD students is genuinely informed by a desire the help non-traditional students gain access to HE and to support their development while they are students. The fundamental weakness of Gibbs’ general argument, however, is that he ignores the general thrust of utilitarian imperative (he is at pains to try and cite Rawls (1999)). However, if we were to extend Rawls’ first principle of liberty to include education at higher level, we can see that the opening of Foundation Degrees allows for more people to exercise their “right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible within a system of liberty for all” (Rawls 1999, p 220) in a fuller manner. It might be admitted that Foundation Degrees do principally allow for wider participation by emphasising the vocational aspect of training and education. This inclusion of access to Higher Education within the UK general notions of equality seems to me to be at the heart of Oxford Brookes University’s policies on equality.

Equal Opportunities policies are rarely exhaustive; nevertheless, some reference can be made to Oxford Brookes University Race Equality Policy (2003) and to other documentation such as the DDA Guidance (Oxford Brookes University, 2004a) and Work-life Balance Statement (Oxford Brookes University, 2004c). The Race equality policy is clear on a generally applicable principle:

The university aims to provide programmes of study and perspectives that recognise and

value the diverse needs, interests and backgrounds of all students. The university is sensitive to the needs of individual students. (2003, p3)

The university aims to ensure that documents associated with programmes of study such as student handbooks, field guides, teaching material and examination papers reflect the principles of equal opportunity, and that a diverse range of case histories, illustrative examples and models are used. (2003, p3)

If it is true that the University seeks to be “responsive to the needs of a diverse workforce” (Oxford Brookes University, 2004c), then am I in some measure responsible for helping my work-based (Foundation Degree) students maintain a healthy work-life balance? In giving the students – non-traditional, mature students – time for support, I feel I answer some of the questions raised, for example, in Supporting Students (Williams, 2003, p23). However, from their reflective exercises it is apparent that this is not always the case or that support does not extend far enough:

“Sometimes I have questioned myself whether I am suitable for this course and I have asked myself whether I am coping or not. Ideally you would work part-time for the duration of the course… I have found this the most difficult area to organise, particularly because I work full-time, have a family to feed and be part of and a house to manage.”

“One of the challenging things is to work all day, drive for an hour to reach the university, concentrate for 3 hours then drive for another hour.”

“Organise a support network around you at work, at home and socially, arrange treats, dates, time for yourself, friends and stick to them!”

I feel, therefore, I am in process of discovering a weakness in my approach – not yet resolved – around the multi-faceted concerns for course quality (and student experience of the course) and the pastoral concerns for students facing pressure due to the course.

If, as the University statement says, we are “sensitive to the needs of individual students” (Oxford Brookes University, 2003, p3), the second major set of needs I encounter and am aware of is the needs of students whose first language and/or culture is other than White UK. In particular, ECS attracts a number of young women from the local Punjabi Muslim community, and I am concerned that the shift to a greater degree of independent study should be supported as well as possible. TA number of discussions have taken place around how we support students from these and similar backgrounds; my next move will be to discuss with one of the ITT Maths team, herself a Brookes graduate and a Punjabi –speaker, whether there are ways in which we might be more responsive to the needs to these young students while not compromising on standards[1] (The lecturer concerned (S) has also helped contribute to Foundation Degree students’ understanding of the needs of Punjabi-speaking children and their families; see Appendix 1).

Again, the difficulty lies in ensuring course overall quality while supporting hesitant students. The thrust of Ryan’s argument might be seen as placatory (cf many of the examples cited, passim), were it not for the fact that taking a white, middle-class educational approach (in terms of content and delivery) tends to ignore the huge step that entry in HE in UK represents for both international students and students from UK communities at risk of marginalisation. Recently an international student came to me asking for an extension on personal grounds; the relief when I agreed to it was obvious – for me, to an almost embarrassing degree; I wonder whether she felt that this was simply a step too far for her to take, approaching a tutor out of class time on a matter of personal importance.

Standards of written English vary enormously at Brookes, almost, it seems sometimes, irrespective of the individual student’s background, but the following short extracts from two students in the same module from the Far East serve (before dealing in more length with EO and written English, below) as a useful reminder that there is no such thing as The International Student:

The competent accomplishment of tasks becomes routine with experience and, for many staff, change threatens their sense of competence and mastery of their work.

Workings in the Early Year setting, childcare are able to provide professional support for children to learn in different area.

The individual student presents with individual needs.

The final issue I want to explore is connected with, but wider than the issue of teaching students whose first language is other than English; it is the issue of clarity of written English itself. In the extracts from the International Students above, it is clear that students come to Brookes with very varied standards. The problems associated with written English – and with receptive language as well – are not confined to students from countries other than UK, or whose first language is other than English.

I will, ignore, for the purposes of this paper, those students who have had already an assessment for dyslexia and for whom support is well documented (eg Oxford Brookes University 2004 b), but I note that a number of students come to the University with a growing awareness of difficulties in this area that have not, at the time of enrolment, been fully explored. For this category, the tutor/lecturer needs to exercise especial care, to “get the message right” without either giving implicit permission for opting out or setting unreachable standards. Dyslexia does not mean a carte blanche to produce poorly organised work and simply expect the course to cope; having dyslexia is a complex and uneven learning difficulty, which may not have been diagnosed in Primary or Secondary education; indeed at an examination board recently I heard of a student diagnosed in her final term of HE[2]. From the University website sections on dyslexia, it is apparent that tutors obviously have a similar difficulty:

Q. How do I distinguish the work of a dyslexic student, from that of a student that has done No work, etc?

A. Sometimes this is difficult to do… (Oxford Brookes University 2004b)

For “emergent dyslexic” students, dyslexia support needs to be sought quickly but sensitively, giving them permission to seek help without labelling.

The final category of students for whom clarity of written English presents a difficulty are those who, for a variety of reasons, come to HE level coursework with expectations about written English that are at variance from those of teaching staff.

These can be (roughly) categorised for me as:

  • Non-traditional students
  • Students from disciplines where standards of written English has not been insisted upon in previous phases
  • The Generation that Grammar Forgot.

All of whom have a common core of needs:

  • Punctuation
  • Grammar and expression
  • Putting an argument together

In other words, these students present with similar concerns about their standard of English, but from a variety of causes. I have presented them here almost as a spectrum of increasing complexity, and they do have to be seen as interconnected.

However, there is a variation in approach here that needs exploring, noted inter alios by Ramsden (1992), drawing on earlier work by Biggs:

When students feel dominated by external assessment demands and define their task as listing points or reproducing information, then planning, composing and reviewing are not complex; but when they see writing an essay as a learning experience in its own right, careful attention is given to the audience, style and discourse structure (p56)

In other words, the notion that writing must be purposeful (a context embedded in Early Years teaching, cf Hall 1989) might provide a way in to working effectively with students on their written English. It is an EO issue – certainly one in which the concerns around Widening Participation are crucial – that students are equipped for the work they expected to do in HE, and that includes some measure of proficiency in English. In order for students not to be “lost in the learning maze” (Stein, 1987) – and therefore at increased risk of failure or non-completion, all three areas of need have to be addressed.

There is an interesting dilemma here, again reflecting back to the difficulties arising from reconciling quality with student support: how much time ought legitimately be given up from a formal teaching allocation to supporting students in this area? This year, in ECS we identified those first-year students most at need of extra help, and recommended two alternative lines they might follow; one in which they sought help from an Institute-designated language support tutor, and the other in which they came fro an informal class looking at punctuation and sentences structure with me. This has, I feel, to be extra to the course, although I fully understand the need to show students that essay writing is a “learning experience in its own right” (see above). Should tutor time be bid for in order to continue this latter form of support, or should we look to the existing support strategies and urge students to access them? This extends into my third area of concern: the putting together of reasoned argument, clearly an issue not only for academic standards themselves, but also for employability. I am a member of a sub-group of the Child Development and Education Academic Group at the Westminster Institute, which is beginning work on developing criticality with students – and there is clearly space for published papers here.

To apply this further brings us outside the scope of this essay, into consideration of students and lecturer’s role in relation to employability, transferable skills, &c., but highlights again that insistence on clarity of written English cannot simply be the idée fixe of this tutor or that, but must be seen as part of a complex interrelationship between the learner, the university and society at large.

The University aim of being “sensitive to the needs of individual students” (Oxford Brookes University, 2003, p3; see above) must require some flexibility around student contact and support, but at the same time, widening participation is recognized as a major initiative by the present government (DfES 2004, O’Hara and Bingham 2004), and cannot be expected to succeed simply through “goodwill time” or on the whim of individual lecturers. Rawls’ argument, touched on in my introduction, suggests that education is a constituent part of equality and liberty, and while individuals must have a part to play, access to support also needs to be a common aspect of HE.


DfES (2004) Aim Higher Programme: Welcome Page

http://www.dfes.gov.uk/aimhigherprogramme/ accessed 08.07.04

Gibbs P. (2002) Who Deserves Foundation Degrees? Journal of Further and Higher Education, 26, 3, pp. 197-206

Hall, N (ed.) (1989) Writing with Reason, London: Hodder and Stoughton

O’Hara, M; Bingham, R (2004) Widening participation on early childhood studies and early years education degrees. Journal of Further & Higher Education, May 2004, Vol. 28 Issue 2, Available on-line: accessed 14.07.04

Oxford Brookes University (2004a) Disability Discrimination Act Guidance http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/hr/eod/dda.html, accessed 25.05.04

Oxford Brookes University (2004b) Dyslexia Guidance pages http://www.brookes.ac.uk/student/services/dyslexia/ accessed 28.06.04

Oxford Brookes University (2003) Race Equality Policy, http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/hr/eod/race_equality_policy.pdf, accessed 25.05.04

Oxford Brookes University (2004c) Work-life balance statement, http://www.brookes.ac.uk/services/hr/eod/wlb/index.html, accessed 25.05.04

Ramsden, P (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge

Ryan, J (2000) A Guide to Teaching International Students, Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford Brookes University

Williams, K (ed.) (2003) Supporting Students: a staff handbook, Oxford Brookes University Internal publication.

Rawls, J (revised ed., 1999) A Theory of Justice, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Stein, N (1987) Lost in the Learning Maze, Journal of Learning Difficulties, 20, 7, 1987, pp 409-410

[1] See Appendix 2 [Outcome 5, item 3]: notes from this meeting after completion of this essay
[2] This, itself, has implications for lecturers referring students for support.

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