The importance of doing ‘with’ rather than ‘to’

Image by Clay Banks
I have worked in widening participation (WP) for my entire career, and its capacity to change lives, institutions and society is what makes me so proud of my profession. However, one aspect of WP that surfaces occasionally in policy, practice and theoretical discussion has bothered me since I started. There is sometimes a tendency to know what is best for the audience, a well-meaning but ultimately patronising and misguided approach which risks alienating the people we need to engage with. I think of this as a missionary model of widening participation, in which middle-class university staff save the working-class from their circumstances. I have, over the years, seen communications which encourage young people to turn their backs on their neighbourhood, friends and family for a ‘transformative’ experience at university. I am not sure that as a sector we have properly weighed the implications of this type of messaging.
A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to participate in a programme run jointly by OFFA and Sheffield Hallam which encouraged practitioners to support their practical experience with academic writing. This helped me articulate some of my frustrations around this problematic approach to WP as I see it. After a lot of false starts and dead ends, I produced a paper proposing that the missionary model should be retired in favour of a more inclusive, participatory approach, which admits that the sector has as much to learn from its audience as they have from us, if not more so.

I subsequently ran an action research project through our local NCOP which taught research skills and co-produced questions with Year 12 students in Sussex on how their peers and communities viewed higher education. The results were fascinating, and so far away from typical responses gathered from happy sheets at parents’ evenings. I am really proud that the University of Sussex has made the principle of ‘doing with, rather than to’ such a prominent theme in its most recent Access and Participation Plan. We are planning to recruit large numbers of students to help us co-create support for success and progression. As an institution we recognise the value of our students’ insight, and I am sure that as collaborative partners, they will help us find answers to some of the hardest questions around fair access and participation.

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