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The widening participation agenda in higher education has been in place for decades. Widening participation straregy aims to address discrepancies in the take-up of higher education opportunities between different under-represented groups of students.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, lower income households and other under-represented groups may face barriers to entry to higher education. Widen participation schemes attempt to remove these barriers and improve access to education, progress within higher education and to improve graduate outcomes and employability.

Widening participation in higher education is currently delivered:

  • by institutions though their widening participation activities and strategies;
  • through the work of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) which approves and monitors HEIs’ access agreements and disseminates best practice across the sector; and
  • through the work of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) which funds activity and administers the National Collaborative Outreach Programme.

The numbers of disadvantaged young people going into higher education have risen significantly in the past decade and are now at a record high and despite the increase in tuition fees in 2012.

However progress against targets has been slow.

In 2015 the Government set two targets for widening participation in higher education by 2020:

  • To double the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education;
  • To increase by 20% the numbers of students from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds entering HE.

Past widening participation strategies have focused on the provision of financial support and outreach activities. Current widening participation strategies aim to be ‘smarter’ and to support activities which have demonstrable impact in improving access and participation, progress in higher education and employment outcomes.

This briefing paper aims to provide an overview of policy on widening participation and widening participation activity, to give sources of statistics on access to higher education in England, to evaluate progress in widening participation and to flag up current issues.


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