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Widening participation to university. What policymakers can learn from Bristol’s own research

2 November 2016

The University of Bristol Widening Participation Cluster presented findings from some of their research projects at a seminar in October. PolicyBristol has worked with a number of academics involved, to highlight the policy implications of their research.

Professor Ros Sutherland and Dr Alf Coles presented their research on overcoming mathematical barriers to participation in higher education, which focused on raising attainment in GCSE mathematics. The researchers argue that ongoing collaboration between school and university teachers is essential in order to tackle the gap in HE participation rates between different areas of Bristol.

Professor Leon Tikly and Dr Jo Rose outlined their findings of a project to increase students’ participation in Russell Group universities, which worked with groups of high potential learners from low performing schools. They found that careers advice needed to be timed with ‘crunch points’ in students’ decision-making processes: choosing A level and degree subjects; making UCAS applications; receiving predicted grades; and receiving offers from universities.

Drs Sue Timmis and Bernadita Munoz Chereau, alongside Ms Wan Ching Yee, explored the role of digital diversity in learning and belonging. Their work looked at how to improve the retention and success of under-represented students through digital technologies, and worked with Bristol undergraduates who documented their learning experiences through one year. Implications from the research include recommending that higher education institutions work towards more inclusive teaching, learning, accommodation and facilities policies that will benefit all, without positioning WP students as ‘needy’ or disadvantaged.

Professor Richard Harris and Ms Sara Davies undertook a comparative evaluation of the effects on widening participation of outreach work and bursaries, finding that bursaries allowed students from less advantaged backgrounds to participate more fully in University life. As a result, they recommend that bursaries and outreach programmes should not be viewed in the context of an either-or but are complementary tools that should operate alongside one another.

Further information

Set up in 2004, the cluster undertakes research into widening participation (WP) that is relevant to Bristol’s own circumstances. Covering a wide range of WP topics, and focused on access to the University of Bristol for students from a range of backgrounds, the seminar showcased the findings from some of the current projects. You can find out more about the Widening Participation Research Cluster on their webpage.

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