From time to time you’ve probably noticed groups of school children touring wide-eyed around the campus, perhaps accompanied by their teacher or TAs, tip-toeing through the library and taking photos next to all those buildings and facilities you’ve stopped noticing after first few weeks. It is likely that some of those children are visiting the campus within the widening participation programmes your university is running.

 What is it and why is it important?Helping change direction

In a nutshell, widening participation is about ensuring the student intake at higher education institutions is a diverse as possible. In order to achieve that, widening participation programmes and policies targeting low participation groups, mostly students from lower-socio-economic status (FSM students), ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, etc., as annual reports show that groups such as these struggle to enter the HE and, later on, to successfully complete their degrees. Universities cooperate with schools to motivate the students to continue their education and provide them with support in making a well-informed decision about their future.

These programmes are far from perfect and it is certainly open to debate to what extent are actually successful, how they should be designed and implemented to achieve the intended objectives,

Academic benefits: CV boosting experience

Obviously, increasing equal educational opportunities is a good thing and it’s always nice to help the world become a better and more just place, but you might be wondering what’s in it for you. As PhD researchers, we all lead very busy lives, and between reading, writing, lab or field work, and all the other doctoral perks, it’s hard to find time for yet another activity.

Career wise (and it would be kind of great to have one, right?), having an understanding of widening participation, especially gained through first-hand experience, could be a valuable asset in the interviews for your first academic post. Furthermore, working with students from diverse backgrounds speaks in favour of your ability to teach in a widely accessible and inclusive way. Depending on the type of programmes you work on, you can develop a variety of relevant skills.

To illustrate, the Brilliant Club at University of Warwick runs programmes which target exclusively PhDs and postdoc, who have the chance to design and deliver courses based on their own research. That certainly ticks the box “communicating your research to non-specialists” and, furthermore, if you haven’t been fortunate enough to teach undergrads, this is a fantastic opportunity to gain university-style teaching experience, from designing the course contents to marking your students’ essays.

Even if you are not after a position in the academia, communication and presentation skills, experience in organisation and project managing, as well as working effectively in a team, is something you can draw on in almost any profession.

Get involved

If you feel that widening participation is something you would both benefit from and could contribute to, there are many ways to get the ball rolling. Firstly, talk to the department at your university which is in charge of these programmes. If there isn’t an office dedicated to widening participation and outreach, students’ admission might be a good place to start. Apart from institutional programmes, there are quite a few charities active in this field, have a look at the work done by the Brilliant Club, Pure Potential, Into University, WISE, etc. If you cannot find anything you would like to take part in, you could always approach a school or relevant organisation with your own suggestions.

What are your thoughts on WP as a tool for improving the accessibility of higher education? Have you heard about or been involved with any of these programmes at your institution?

Let me know in the comment section!

This is the first of two posts. Tomorrow Ana will discuss her experiences of Widening Participation.