An introduction to the Widening Participation strategy at The University of Edinburgh

Photo credit: Erika Stevenson

In this post, Laura Cattell, Head of Widening Participation and Deputy Director of Student Recruitment and Admissions, introduces the University’s Widening Participation strategy, and explains how it is linked to the national, socio-political context…

Volunteering as an undergraduate student in a low attaining school, I became aware of the barriers that educational and societal systems can have for individuals or groups of people. Years later, after working in the youth justice and education sectors, I moved into a role within widening participation. Working with so many fantastic students over the years has compounded my view that widening participation is not just ‘a nice thing to do’; rather, it is essential to unlock and nurture potential, and to create a wider benefit for the individuals, their families/communities, and for the universities that they attend.

The challenge

18 year-olds from Scotland’s 20% least deprived communities are more than four times as likely to enter university as those from the 20% most deprived communities. To start to address this challenge, the Commission on Widening Access was established and published its 34 recommendations for the sector in 2016.

The school attainment gap in Scotland persists, and it is extreme for those in the most deprived communities. This situation is exacerbated by a lack of geographic mobility for disadvantaged groups of students. This applies to students from the whole of the UK, although it is particularly pronounced in the west of Scotland.

In the midst of this context, around 22% of children in Edinburgh live in relative poverty (defined as their household income being below 60% of the average income). Edinburgh is an affluent city and it ranks in the top Scottish quartile for incomes, but it is in the poorest Scottish quartile for indicators of poverty. In the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, the proportion of households living below the poverty threshold rises to 33%. This level is comparable to the rate recorded in the most deprived parts of Glasgow and almost double the rate recorded across Edinburgh’s least deprived areas.

How are we doing?

These stark statistics point towards the complexity of widening participation and a need to understand our challenges both locally and nationally. This year, The University of Edinburgh met the Commission for Widening Access targets of 10% of our intake coming from the 20% most deprived areas in Scotland three years ahead of schedule. Our students from SIMD20 (Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation) represent 11% of this year’s UG intake. This is a positive step, but only a part of the solution. The greater challenge will be to ensure that these students are well supported at the University and go on to thrive in our academic community. Furthermore, disadvantage and under-representation goes beyond this government target. Some of our most important work focuses on learners who have been in the care system, those who are estranged from their families, and those returning to education later in life.

Of course access to University is only part of the picture. Critical to our strategy is our belief that it is never enough to simply encourage and support students into The University of Edinburgh. We want to them to succeed in their studies, reach their potential, have a chance to participate fully in every aspect of University life, and then to progress onto the career or postgraduate study of their choice. And that’s why our Widening Participation strategy focuses on the whole student journey. There are four mutually supportive strands to the strategy: Aspiration & Early Engagement, Support to Get In, Support to Succeed, and Support to Progress.

Image credit: RRD Creative.

Why should this matter to you?

This is a university-wide strategy and a collective responsibility. To support more colleagues to engage with widening participation and with the strategy we have developed guidance for each of the strategy strands which will be launched in the autumn. This months’ Widening Participation strategy-themed Teaching Matters’ posts will showcase the already rich variety of outreach and support strategies that academic and professional services staff in the University are undertaking. On 29 May, there will be an open Senate session where you can hear and discuss more on this topic. You can book on MyEd.

Concurrent to the Widening Participation strategy is the review of student support and the Thematic Reviews for support for BME students and for mature students, carers and student parents. These are vital steps in understanding the needs of our students and in striving for an enhanced student experience for a diverse student body.

As our Widening Participation strategy principles demonstrate, widening participation and inclusion can and should be the lens to everything we do. We can be both a world-leading centre of academic excellence and a place of opportunity for a diverse group of students, including those from some of the most deprived communities and under-represented groups in Scotland.

Laura Cattell

Laura is Head of Widening Participation and Deputy Director of Student Recruitment and Admissions at The University of Edinburgh. She has strategic oversight and leadership for the University’s widening participation strategy and implementation. She works closely with Colleges, Schools and professional services teams to implement this, and leads the Widening Participation team who deliver outreach and transition programmes across Scotland. Prior to working at The University of Edinburgh Laura worked as Head of Widening Participation at The University of Liverpool and in outreach roles at Goldsmiths, University of London. She also held posts such as Vice-Chair for the Russell Group Widening Participation Association. Prior to working in HE she worked in the Youth Justice and Education sectors.

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