In any profession that engages young people in social and educational contexts, there is a requirement for effective professional frameworks and standards of practice. This can be seen with youth work, careers guidance and teaching to name just a few. Surprisingly however, given that widening participation in higher education has been a key policy objective since the Dearing report of 1997, no such framework exists within higher education outreach. Given that persistent gaps in access and participation have remained during the intervening period, perhaps it’s about time that we do.
The standing of outreach practitioners as professionals within the higher education sector is gathering momentum. Indeed, the Uni Connect outreach programme has highlighted professionalisation as a stated ambition.
“The focus on collaboration is supporting partnership development and joint working, facilitating knowledge sharing and continuing professional development (CPD) of partnership staff, and encouraging the development of innovative approaches to outreach” (Office for Students, 2019).
However, how this ambition is achieved is less clear. For outreach practitioners, knowledge is created ‘on the spot’ and such knowledge is based on individual experience based on their race, gender, and class position. This ‘tacit knowledge’ is used to adapt activity based on previous professional experiences. Tacit professional knowledge is difficult to evidence and conflicts with Government approaches to robust evaluation. Should that knowledge come from the lived experiences of individuals from predominantly middle-class settings, it could also be argued that it is dislocated from the experiences of groups currently targeted by outreach programmes. If left unengaged it is easy to see how this could prove problematic in achieving widening participation targets set by the regulator.
In 2020, the Southern Universities Network (SUN), a Uni Connect partnership, provided workshops for outreach practitioners responsible for the planning and delivery of student-facing outreach activity. Practitioners who attended were from a variety of roles including staff in Further Education colleges, Local Authority careers advisors and outreach practitioners employed by SUN partner universities.
The aim of the workshop was to provide space for practitioners to reflect on their own lived experience and was led by members of the team engaged in research and evaluation. We wanted them to develop knowledge on how to use reflective practice when planning outreach activity. In addition to this we wanted to incorporate practitioner voices in our wider evaluation of the programme.
Taking a participatory approach, the workshop prompted organic discussions between practitioners on topics relevant to their roles and lived experiences. And perhaps most importantly, how this influenced their practice. This prompted a rich discussion about the positives and negatives of a potential framework of professionalisation. Positives included standard expectations of practice being useful for new practitioners moving into outreach roles from other professions. However, negatives included how this could alienate individuals from underrepresented higher education backgrounds in applying for outreach roles if specific qualifications or formalised cultural resources were required. When considering this argument at a national, or even international scale, reflective practice and professionalisation prompt important questions to ask as individuals and a sector as a whole.
Practitioners confidently critically assessed how their lived experiences influenced practice and were able to identify opportunities to include other voices in planning of activities. This is an important aspect of ensuring the collaborative nature of Uni Connect supports a transformative approach to widening participation which given the persistent challenges in access we face, is sorely needed.
So What Now?
Uni Connect is soon to enter Phase 3. At a time when funding has been cut by a third, there has never been a greater need to work smarter. Our partnership is doing this by identifying appropriate projects where the inclusion of reflection is an essential part of evaluation. This will support our understanding of what works, why and for whom. It will also identify gaps in our knowledge based on our own experiences and combat assumptive practice.
This approach to evaluation contributes a small piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle which constitutes a professional framework to widening participation practice. To complete the puzzle, we will need to engage in an exercise as a sector to understand more deeply who works in outreach, why, and how their lived experiences contribute to the overarching objectives to the regulator.
This blog is by:
Dr Alex Blower (@EduDetective)
Alex is Access and Participation Manager at Arts University Bournemouth with research interests in class-based inequality and access to Higher Education
Naomi Clements (@NaomiAClements)
Naomi is Research and Evaluation Officer for the Southern Universities Network and is currently researching evaluator identity and practice in widening participation.
Photo by: Dan Dimmock