Skip to main content

'What works' and 'what makes sense' in Widening Participation: an investigation into the potential of university-led outreach to raise attainment in schools

Anthony, Anna (2019) 'What works' and 'what makes sense' in Widening Participation: an investigation into the potential of university-led outreach to raise attainment in schools. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (KAR id:77266)

Language: English
Download this file
[thumbnail of 45Anna Anthony What works and what makes sense in Widening Participation.pdf]


The issue of social class related inequalities in access to Higher Education (HE) has been high on the political agenda for nearly two decades. In spite of significant funding, channelled through university-led outreach activities to encourage disadvantaged young people into university, the social gap in HE participation persists. As a result, universities are under increasing pressure to provide hard evidence of 'what works' in terms of the outreach they deliver under the Government's Widening Participation (WP) agenda. Recent large-scale research identifies prior attainment at Key Stage 4 (GCSE) as the main barrier to HE access for disadvantaged students, and as a result the Office for Students (OfS) now require universities to raise students' pre-entry attainment. This research examines the potential for university-led outreach activities to help disadvantaged students over this attainment hurdle. Two of the three research questions posed draw on big data collected through HEAT, a system whereby universities in England record data on the students engaged in their outreach activities, tracking their subsequent progress in terms of school attainment and eventual HE entry. Research question one examines the extent to which outreach delivered in the past has been targeted towards the 'right' students, most in need of assistance with this level of attainment. I find a considerable amount of resource has been mis-targeted. In the second research question, I devise a quasi-experimental method that makes the best use of HEAT's collective tracking data to explore whether outreach activities are able to raise students' attainment. Results show a positive impact on attainment, although this is accompanied with a 'health warning' regarding the important unresolved issues of epistemology associated with my approach. The third research question moves away from HEAT's quantitative data and draws on qualitative methods to understand the specific activities universities are delivering to raise attainment, and how these might be expected to work. Content analysis of institutional Access Agreements provides a good starting point, and from this I generate a typology of attainment-raising activities being delivered by universities. This line of enquiry is extended through interviews with WP managers from 30 universities where Academic Tutoring delivered by student ambassadors emerges as the most common attainment-raising activity. This choice is seemingly driven by the demanding requirements on universities to show hard evidence of impact on exam results. However, closer examination of the processes and mechanisms through which Academic Tutoring activities are expected to work are not sufficiently theoretically convincing. I conclude the research with a series of recommendations for policy. These include lessening the strict requirements on universities to demonstrate impact when it comes to raising attainment in schools. This may encourage more creative activities, less reductionist in their approach than Academic Tutoring which appears to replicate what is already happening in schools. I also suggest that HEAT should be utilised for its monitoring capacity rather than being a 'scientific' predictor of impact evaluation. Government should investigate using HEAT as a mechanism to provide the OfS with data on the types of students receiving outreach and where they live in the country. Further research is also needed to better understand the circumstances under which Academic Tutoring outreach activities, which are already being delivered by universities, may be able to add value to the complex issue of raising attainment in schools.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Song, Miri
Uncontrolled keywords: Widening Participation Higher Education Educational Disadvantage
Divisions: Divisions > Division for the Study of Law, Society and Social Justice > School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 16 Oct 2019 12:40 UTC
Last Modified: 08 Dec 2022 09:47 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Anthony, Anna.

Creator's ORCID:
CReDIT Contributor Roles:
  • Depositors only (login required):

Total unique views for this document in KAR since July 2020. For more details click on the image.