Reaching Beyond the School Gate: Making University Outreach More Meaningful

I began working in university outreach back in 2012. Since then, universities have – quite rightly – been under increasing pressure to demonstrate the impact of their widening participation activities.

Across the sector, the most common model of student engagement focuses on schools. We look at educational institutions that have a large proportion of students who are under-represented in Higher Education, we contact that institution, and we deliver activity to their students in an almost exclusively educational setting.

This model makes practical sense for universities. It’s an easy way for institutions to target activity and engage students who, it could be argued, would benefit most from the outreach work that universities deliver. But, given the changes to the landscape of Higher Education since the publication of the Dearing report in 1997, have we ingrained our work within a model that has reached the limit of its success?

It’s no secret that we’re operating in an environment where university participation has experienced a seismic expansion. In the 2019 UCAS end of cycle report it was highlighted that this year alone there were 541,240 applicants accepted to UK institutions of Higher Education. Although the numbers sound impressively large, within such statistics are stories of persistent gaps in participation amongst under-represented groups. Gaps in which little meaningful progress has been made.

So why is this? Well one of the answers may lie in a conference I attended back in 2019. The keynote speaker, Dr Neil Harrison, posed a question relating to our engagement practices in university outreach. Essentially Dr Harrison argued that much of the work we do as practitioners is targeted toward students who are probably already going to university (they just don’t know which one yet).

If that assertion rings true, then can we honestly say our work to widen participation is meaningful?

If our current modus operandi in widening participation is to engage young people who are already going to university, then maybe it’s time we sought to adjust it.

But how?

Working with schools will always form a core part of university outreach teams’ activities. But if we are to successfully meet the challenges around access to Higher Education that have persisted, we need to broaden our gaze. These challenges are not faced by students in isolation. Often, they are shared amongst friends and family members. They are embedded within socioeconomic contexts and are woven into the fabric of communities.

That is not to say that universities shouldn’t engage with schools, it’s an instrumental part of the work that outreach practitioners conduct. But if we want our work to have the impact that we would all like it to, should it constitute all of the work that we do? How often do we step back and consider who’s not in the classroom when we’re standing at the front extolling the virtues of Higher Education?

Recently, I began some work to evaluate a widening participation initiative based in the West Midlands. The project used a model of detached youth work as its primary mode of delivery. Youth workers met with young people in local parks, outside fish and chip shops and in community spaces which were a far cry from the school classroom. The model built engagement with young people through work in the community. This was then complemented by supplementary activity at a local high school, bridging the gap between the two.

During my interviews with stakeholders, I heard accounts of work conducted with students and families who most certainly wouldn’t have sat in the ‘probably already going to university’ camp. Indeed, rather than debating the merits of Higher Education participation, many of the families were facing much more pressing concerns such as regularly having enough to eat and keeping a roof over their heads. Reflecting on the relationship between the youth workers and the young people, a number of teachers at the school voiced their surprise at the rapport developed with students who had been marked as ‘disengaged’ within a classroom context.

In conversations about their practice, the youth workers described their commitment to empowering young people. Providing a mechanism for them to access social and cultural resources that were on their doorstep, but previously inaccessible. This was a model of university outreach which worked with a community. A model which focused on the development of relationships built upon foundations of mutual respect.

Through their work they regularly engaged with parents, extended family members and other members of the young person’s social network. Individuals who, within the current model of engagement with university outreach activity, are too commonly written off as ‘hard to reach’. In turn they became an important source of information, advice and support for the young people, opening a door for the students to engage in on-campus activity at the local university.

In 2019 thirty UK institutions of Higher Education signed up to an agreement making a formal commitment to civic engagement, developing partnerships designed to overcome the social and economic challenges facing local communities.

This provides an opportunity for outreach practitioners and universities to adopt a model of engagement which deepens work withcommunities in a new and different way. It would be a clear, visible display of the civic commitment described above. It would also provide a vehicle in which to drive activity with young people for whom arguably, the current model of engagement for widening participation has systematically overlooked.

For outreach work to have a meaningful impact we need to adapt our approach. To coin a phrase used by Dr Neil Harrison at that 2019 conference:

If we want to make a difference to the lives of young people in communities which are ‘hard to reach’, it’s long past time that we grew longer arms.

Alex Blower

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