People from disadvantaged backgrounds face significant barriers to accessing opportunities in higher education.
In the United Kingdom, the “widening participation” agenda aims to level the playing field for learners from all backgrounds.
Along with government agencies, higher education institutions are key players in rolling out the widening participation strategy.
We spoke with Andrew Whitmore, a Senior Careers Manager at the University of Manchester, about how University Career Services support students from these backgrounds
Understanding Widening Participation
Widening participation support activity in UK higher education is based on several different factors, including:
- Secondary (high) school education: state school students vs private school students
- Percentage of students coming from low-income households
- Percentage of students coming from “low-participation neighborhoods”, living in areas where people are less likely to go to university
- Students with disabilities
- Students from specific ethnic backgrounds
One of the key characteristics of the widening participation programme is that it begins early. Indeed, engaging with children in their primary school years and supporting students in the crucial years immediately prior to university can have a considerable impact on future outcomes. The University of Manchester’s Manchester Access Programme supports students who are over 16 years old to develop a portfolio of work demonstrating specific knowledge and skills that can facilitate their entry into research-intensive universities.
How do career services at the University of Manchester guide Widening Participation students?
For current students, the University of Manchester approaches widening participation with two underpinning ambitions - “no barriers to studying, no boundaries to learning”.
" We’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the best talent doesn’t depend on personal circumstances."
Its commitment to building an inclusive and diverse student environment takes various forms:
Financial aid for work experience
For students who come from the inner city, relocating for an internship can be difficult, especially if that requires paying rent in London. However, passing on the opportunity for work experience would be a great disadvantage in the long run, and allocating bursaries to students who may need help moving for professional experience can make a huge difference.
Mentoring and networking opportunities
At the University of Manchester, there is no Widening Participation-specific mentoring programme. Instead, students are granted early access to the Manchester alumni network, which sets them up with a six-month long mentoring relationship with an alumnus. Giving increased access to mentoring and networking activities to people with lower social capital is crucial because they may not have the necessary resources and connections to network otherwise.
Specific networking events targeted at diverse students are also organised on a regular basis. However, Andrew Whitmore notes that some students are not entirely comfortable being “labelled” as minorities and prefer to look for a job in the “conventional way”. This suggests that more awareness-building initiatives could help students change their perception of such programme, and see them as another possible avenue to finding the right role, rather than a way for companies to “meet their minority quota”.
Job and internship opportunities
Manchester alumni also offer overseas placements to Widening Participation students for a few weeks. After two or three weeks working overseas and travelling, students return to campus and present their learnings to the university staff.
The University of Manchester, too, recruits summer interns and gives priority access to Widening Participation students, using the programme as a recruitment tool. The career service also flags companies that give the best opportunities to graduates who took part in Widening Participation programmes.
How is Widening Participation success measured at the University of Manchester?
The University of Manchester releases an annual Widening Participation Report to measure the success of its individual widening participation initiatives. The latest data shows that 29.2% of undergraduate students at The University of Manchester come from low income households of less than £25,000 per annum.
However, Widening Participation is not limited to getting diverse students to enter university: the aim of the programme is, after all, to ensure that they are able to achieve social mobility on the job market.
The most recent five year average for graduate employability outcomes shows that the the gap between Widening Participation students and students from higher socio-economic groups at the University of Manchester continues to narrow.
However, general measurements are less positive when looking at earnings. While every group earns more when they have a degree, Widening Participation graduates rarely catch up with those who started off with a wealthy background and high social capital.
This is a key priority for career services at the University of Manchester today: while giving equal opportunities and access to mentorship to students from all backgrounds is a crucial first step, closing the wage gap will be the next frontier, and requires commitment from both career services and employers.
The University of Manchester seeks to attract the best students from all backgrounds because a diverse student community fosters a vibrant and cohesive social and cultural environment. The University’s responsibility also reaches far beyond the three or four years spent at university - being part of a Widening Participation initiative is intended to shape the entire trajectory of a student’s career.
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