Understanding Widening Participation in Northern Ireland

The advice monsters

At the end of October 2022 the Understanding Widening Participation in Northern Ireland (NI) report was published. Authored by CFE Research, the report, commissioned by the Department for the Economy reviews the progress that has been made towards achieving the vision that was set out in the Access to Success strategy of 2012. In 2012 the then Minister for Employment and Learning Dr Stephen Farry MLA, launched the Higher Education Strategy for Northern Ireland, ‘Graduating to Success – a Higher Education strategy for Northern Ireland’ incidentally the strategy was launched at the FACE 2012 annual conference hosted by Ulster University. Farry set out the vision for higher education in Northern Ireland up to 2020, it was ambitious and challenging; he urged the Higher Education sector to work in partnership with Government, Business, Students and with other stakeholders to meet the expectations of the strategy. The document recognised that there were several discrete and tough challenges for the sector, the Access to Success strategy set out the proposed programme for Widening participation within the higher education delivery partners.

The strategy acknowledged that whilst participation rates in NI compared favourably with other parts of the United Kingdom they were ‘stubborn pockets of under representation for specific groups’, a set of actions were set out to strengthen the WP offer, including:

  • the development of a regional awareness programme to increase the profile of HE and the relevance of higher-level skills, among under-represented communities and in the workplace; (‘Reach Higher’, was rolled out in 2013 in ended in 2016 due to financial pressures and a suspension of spend on advertising.)
  • additional funding to support the expansion of the range of aspiration- and attainment-raising programmes available.
  • a target to increase the total number of enrolments on Foundation Degrees to 2,500 by 2015; (By the 2013/14 academic year, the target had been exceeded: 2,528 enrolments had been recorded.)
  • encouragement for HE providers to develop regional programmes for alternative routes to HE

Ten years on, the higher education landscape has changed considerably across the UK. We have differential fees and student number control policies in place in all four regions and changes to widening participation funding has considerably altered the landscape. ‘Understanding Widening Participation in Northern Ireland’ is the department’s attempt to ensure that progress towards Northern Ireland widening participation objectives continue to progress into the future.

It will come as no surprise to FACE members that the barriers to accessing higher education in Northern Ireland are no different to that of the rest of the UK, however access for those living in rural areas and low levels of attainment are issues in Northern Ireland.

The number of NI domiciled students studying in Great Britain (GB) has increased by nearly 20%, however ‘reluctant’ and ‘determined ‘leavers are a concern as NI’s graduate talent is being lost which in turn impacts on the development of the region’s wider skills policy and growth.

Northern Ireland Higher Education institutions charge £4,530 to NI domiciled students. (UK institutions can now charge students anything up to £9,250). Student Number Controls continue to exist in NI, the maximum student number (MaSN) restricts the NI student population in institutions to 24,000 -25,000, this has remained the same for the last decade (student number controls in England were abolished in 2015/16). Interestingly the recommendations in the report do not specially ask institutions to explore the MaSN in any more detail. Does this mean that competition for places will continue and potentially increase?

The seven recommendations set out by the report to move towards ‘developing a future approach’, recognises the distance travelled by providers over the past ten years. However it also acknowledges that the barriers that under-represented groups have faced are still in existence today, progress has not been achieved. Targeted and tailored interventions to meet the needs and challenges faced by specific groups are not being delivered.

Recommendation seven of the report suggests establishing a collective forum where NI providers can come together to maximise value for money and minimise duplication of activity and thus ensuring better coordination of widening participation interventions. Reading this, I reflect on the work of Aimhigher, the national programme in the UK that focused on increasing participation in higher education particularly among students from non-traditional backgrounds, minority groups and disabled groups. Created in 2004 it brought together a wide range of partners to tackle underachievement and representation. Aimhigher was closed by the coalition government in July 2011; best practice from Aimhigher partnerships continues to exist today, you can find papers and reports in Research Journals and publications, organisations such as NNECL founded in 2013 continue to champion learners who are care experienced and our very own Forum for Access and continuing education – FACE -, brings together practitioners and Researchers to continue the debate and lobby for a more collaborative approach to our widening participation practice.

Aimhigher may have closed, however its legacy remains relevant today. Aimhigher can continue to have positive impact on practice, philosophy and delivery. I urge those in NI who are setting up the collaborative forum to reflect on Aimhigher practice and allow it to inform future direction.

To read the full report Understanding widening Participation in Northern Ireland .

Deirdre Lynskey

Co-Chair FACE

Photo by Tomasz Frankowski

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