higher education, PhD, widening participation

SRHE and UALL Widening Participation seminar 1

I attended the first in a series of joint SRHE and UALL seminars on researching and evaluating widening participation yesterday. This series aims to blur the boundaries between researchers and practitioners in this area in order to pose questions and challenge to how this work is evaluated and informed by research.

The day consisted of two sociologically focused research papers, a practice case study and then group discussions on questions posed back to the audience. This format was really useful as it allowed us to reflect on the implications and the value of what we had heard earlier in the day.

The first paper by Dr Vikki Boliver used UCAS data to statistically explore the impact of ethnicity on offers by selective universities made to young home applicants. She found that even when data was controlled for other factors such as social class and educational attainment that there was still a significant impact of ethnicity on the likelihood of being made an offer. She  explored a number of commonly given explanations, namely they are less likely to achieve the grades needed for admission, they study the wrong subjects at A-level or they choose highly over subscribed subjects. Her analysis showed that whilst these factors have some effect, they do not fully explain what is happening. She also posed a fourth explanation, that admissions selectors may be seeking to admit a student body that is representative of the wider population. Whilst Ethnicity is not given to selectors, she argued that application forms have many clue in terms of names and what is written in personal statements. One interesting question from this first paper was that if a number of international students are likely to be admitted to an institution, does this make home selection more skewed to white students in order to ensure the cohort is representative of a wider population. Furthermore, how do selectors judge representativeness? Vikki also highlighted the challenges posed to researchers wanting to look into these areas due to the limits on data that UCAS will make public. One suggestion made by the audience was to make is accessible in a anonymised form.

The second paper by Professor David James looked at some issues raised in the study of white middle class school choice that he undertook from 2011-13 with Diane Reay and Gill Crozier. He also highlighted the way in which his study problematises using school postcode data as a way to judge the need for WP interventions for given children. When middle class parents choose to send their children to local schools which may be areas of deprivation, they are often doing so because they understand the system and know that they will get extra attention as they are seen as a valuable commodity. As such, they may be more likely to be selected as ‘gifted and talented’ or put forward for WP interventions, even though they may not be the young people who need these interventions the most.

He also raised important issues around WP research such as what should be the unit of focus, is it the individuals or arguably should we be looking at the systems and structures that shape the actions of individuals? He posed the question of what drives WP policy and practice, highlighting the competing needs of social good and economic needs of both individuals and institutions. Through this paper, David showed the importance of taking a sociological viewpoint on WP, even when working in practice as these sorts of issues may be hidden by a purely data driven view of who WP interventions should be targeted at.

Both these papers and the issues they raised made me consider my own experience as a teacher and the way predicted grades that were submitted to UCAS often became a point of negotiation for middle class parents whereas working class parents often took them as absolutes. This shows the role class may have in privileging the chance of getting offers from more selective institutions.

The final paper was a case study of how Goldsmiths Fine Art programme developed a summer school to make the institution more accessible to local students from FE colleges. They did this through a summer school and ongoing support of portfolio reviews and mock interviews. What was interesting in this case study was the way in which academic staff who were initially resistant to ‘doing WP’ found that these local student have ended up enriching the course and bringing very local issues and experience into the institution. To put a sociological lens onto it, what Goldsmiths did differently was to alter the institutional habitus to make the students feel like part of the institution opposed to bringing them in an expecting them to adapt to the institution. This raises the important question of who needs to change in WP interventions; the individual, or the institution, or is it both?

The final discussion session engaged with many of these issues in more depth, namely those surrounding how these issues should inform admission practices, the access to UCAS data and where the focus of evaluation should be. Given the potential links between names and ethnicity, should applications be anonymised to admissions staff? How can we ensure that these trends and issues can be researched when the data is currently not available at the level of detail needed to do so in order to hold institutions to account? Finally, do we need to do more to show not only the statistical impact of intervention but the rich changes that interventions have, should we perhaps be arguing for reporting that values the submission of case studies as well as broader demographic data?

I believe the sessions will appear as a podcast in the near future and the powerpoints made available through the SRHE website.

The next session is on 9th Feb and booking can be found here


Book Review: What About Mozart? What About Murder? – Howard S. Becker

What About Mozart? What About Murder? differs from Becker’s previous work. It is not a monograph on a particular subject the ways that Art Worlds and Outsiders were. Nor is it wholly concerned with the craft in the way Writing for Social Scientists and Telling About Society were. Instead it offers a unique insight into the events and concerns that have sparked his sociological imagination over his career to date. It opens up some of the inner conversations and thoughts that link his work across areas as diverse as deviance and Art.

This volume is focused upon cases studies and their use within Sociology. It takes the reader through different the different forms these take and the ways in which cases can be used to illuminate issues and sociological concerns. Drawing on his wide experience both empirical and anecdotal this is not a text on methodology but an insight into how Becker’s work has been shaped by a commitment to the value of case studies. He addresses issues of how seemingly unrelated cases can spark thinking in completely different fields, how detailed studies of cases can make visible things that other methods hide in black boxes and how imaginary cases can help to make issues more visible.

Through his accessible writing style, Becker generously fills in the blanks by making visible the influences and inspiration behind the various areas of research he has addressed during his career. In making these visible, this book offers a unique insight into how seemingly unrelated areas of study can become influential and how the everyday and the imagined can also prove valuable in sociological research.

This book speaks of his generosity to the reader. He addresses some of those questions that I am sure every academic has asked at some point; how do I decide what to study, where do I go next and How do I know when enough is enough? He does this in an accessible insightful way that makes the reader consider how similar issues might be able to offer useful insights into their own work. As such this text in my mind is essential reading for all PhD and Early career researchers who may be wrestling with these issues and wondering how Becker seamlessly moved from looking at Musicians to Schools and from deviance to Art.


Becker (2014) What About Mozart? What About Murder? Reasoning from cases, Chicago: University of Chicago Press