One of the best things about my job is when a plan comes together. Over the years – probably like most of us in the sector – I have seen (and – hands up – been involved in) some fairly pedestrian interventions which have been flat, one-dimensional and, worst of all, preachy. At Southampton, we are aiming for the opposite of this bland and lifeless approach. We want to create umami WP – rich, soulful, layered and meaningful. WP with depth and flavour.
One of the best ways to create deep widening participation activity is to make sure it authentically reflects the distinctiveness of institutional and local contexts. It needs to be aligned and embedded within wider strategies. This makes sure that the institution recognises the value of the work and resources it properly, and that the work can build on other progressive initiatives in the wider eco-system.
I am very pleased, therefore, that the new strategy for the University of Southampton has egalitarianism as a core value. This is implicit in everything we do and is a very helpful pillar to give our widening participation work an institutional anchor. Below the strategy, there are widening participation KPIs across the suite of strategic plans, ensuring that concepts are backed up by action across the business of the University.
For authenticity, it also needs to honestly reflect what people think and feel about the institution and its location. It is absolutely crucial, then, that when designing an approach to widening participation a university pays a lot of mind to what students, community and staff have to say. Like most universities we have an access and participation plan, and one of the first things we did after I arrived at Southampton in February 2020 was to produce a blueprint for how we were going to achieve our commitments, articulating what widening participation means for and to the University. The resulting plan – for a fairer future – remains the template for our thinking and practice.
We have established four principles which underpin our work: One WP; a whole institution approach which emphasises strategic alignment, cumulative value, cultivating belonging, cultural shift and Total WP. For widening participation to be successful the organisation must be fully bought in – embracing its ethos and practice. The configuration of widening participation at Southampton, in which all parts of the widening participation lifecycle are housed in one directorate, means we can have a seamless approach to working with students from our earliest interactions through to when they graduate and beyond. We are bringing together existing stand-alone projects and newly developed initiatives into an overarching progamme – Ignite Southampton – which will provide sequential and intensive support for students in our target groups. Ignite Southampton has its roots in our alumni community, and over time it will mature into an expanding network of support for our graduates from the programme for as long as they need it. As graduates they can also feed back into the programme by offering mentoring, internships and other support when they are in a position and feel able to do so.
Two-way dialogue is about doing widening participation with students and not to them. We want to get away from outdated approaches to this work which impose what universities and policy makers think people need. This need to be supplanted by a more authentic approach which looks to learn from our students and understand their evolving requirements through insight. That is why we have picked apart the layers of ‘co-creation’ and developed tools for co-governance, design, delivery, research and evaluation. Our Student Advisory Board, made up of paid students who have participated in our projects, is housed in our governance structure, ensuring that students are involved in any major decisions and the University’s assumptions are tested. Our Research Associates programme for PhD students investigates key questions about how our functions and processes affect students from underrepresented groups. We also have a Student Fund that students can bid for to design and deliver their own projects. This commitment a constantly moving feast, and we will continue to be led by the innovations of our student body.
The three points of policy, theory and practice mean that our work is robust and evidence led. Working with Rae Tooth and Julian Crockford of the Villiers Park Educational Trust, we have put a huge amount of investment into cultivating a culture of reflexive practice in which staff have structured time to question their work, learn from its outputs and revise as necessary. Our approach to evaluation has involved in-depth training on theories of change, and our Evaluation Lead coaches staff through this complex process. Evaluation is one of the most exciting areas of widening participation for me, and I am thrilled that our Enhancement team and School of Education have designed a PG Cert in Widening Participation and Evaluation which is part of our commitment to helping to further professionalise the sector. The PG Cert will be an opportunity for practitioners to develop their understanding of evaluation methodologies in a sector and policy context. At the time of writing, we are seeking views from the sector about how this could be of most use, so if you have a view please feel free to express it here.
The final principle is the four arenas we work in – local, national, international and digital. Whilst we have, to varying degrees, initiatives in all of these areas our ambition is to transcend these spaces so that they can support and enhance each other through common activities. These principles are underpinned by our goals: progress – ensuring greater diversity through meeting our access and participation commitments and making a major contribution to the cultural development of the institution and community; programme – a sector leading schedule of activity which is distinct and unique to the University and our region; and people – cultivating a reflective and developed team and a genuine, learning based partnership with our students.
Overarchingly, though, the key to success will be how these initiatives can connect and interweave with each other. We need to ensure, for example, that the outputs of the Research Associates project informs our approach to awarding gaps. We need to make sure that the projects from the Student Fund are delivered to participants on Ignite Southampton. We need to connect graduates in the Ignite network back to their schools and colleges through our pre-entry work. We want to make sure that the cumulative benefit of these activities gives our students as lateral a perspective as possible, and the most varied and useful tools that we can. We also want to create an environment where the cross-pollination of our work leads to new ideas and projects which will progress us to the next level. By prioritising this inter-connectedness we are getting towards the depth we want to see in our work and across the sector.
We are delighted to be hosting the Forum for Access and Continuing Education Conference this Summer. The theme is One Voice: fusing diverse perspectives for collective action which picks up many of these themes. We want to connect people from across our community of practitioners, researchers, policy makers and students so that we can think about how we can support each other to find this depth on a greater scale. We hope to see you there.
Gino Graziano is Director of Widening Participation and Social Mobility at University of Southampton.