Remaking the elite university: An experiment in widening participation in the UK

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This article analyses and critiques the discourse around widening participation in elite universities in the UK. One response, from both university administrators and academics, has been to see this as an ‘intractable’ problem which can at best be ameliorated through outreach or marginal work in admissions policy. Another has been to reject the institution of the university completely, and seek to set up alternative models of autonomous higher education. The article presents a different analysis, in which the university is still seen as central and participation is seen as an aspect of pedagogy rather than as an administrative process. This is illustrated through a description of how a Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities was conceived, designed and implemented at the University of Bristol. This model is used to consider the problems, risks and successes in challenging received notions of how (and whether) widening participation can be achieved, and whether it can reach those who are currently most excluded from elite universities, such as those without qualifications. The article suggests how academics can utilise their expertise to solve key challenges faced by universities and reclaim autonomy in central aspects of university administration. At the same time, it demonstrates how change to the current model of student recruitment can also bring welcome – and transformative – change to the nature of elite higher education institutions in the UK and elsewhere.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-72
Number of pages19
JournalPower and Education
Issue number1
Early online date15 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • Widening participation
  • higher education
  • pedagogy
  • diversity
  • foundation year


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