“Widening participation”, “lifelong learning” and “the expansion of Higher Education” are familiar ideas which have been variously absorbed into the education policy agendas of successive British governments. Access courses have played a key role in the growth of Further and Higher Education, particularly in providing educational opportunities for adult learners who missed out on the conventional “A” level route to university. In this respect the Access movement has been unique in its’ explicit attempt to redress the balance of educational disadvantage and to promote equality of opportunity within the Higher Education sector.

There are distinctive links to be made between Access courses and social work programmes. Access is a popular and expanding route into social work. UCAS statistics for 2001 show that more than 14% of Social Science students, including those studying social work came from Access courses. Only the closely related “subjects allied to medicine”, admitted a slightly larger proportion of former Access students (UCAS, 2003).

The fact that modern social work shares a common ideological foundation with the Access movement is self evident, but rarely acknowledged. The emancipatory philosophy of the early Access courses (Diamond) stemmed from the same social theoretical shift in perception which led to the emphasis on structural interpretations of inequality in social work training from the 1970s onwards. Access and social work may both have lost their radical edge during the past 30 years, but their shared orientation towards those who have or who are experiencing some form of social disadvantage remains.

The UWE programme is typical of the new universities in taking around a third of its social work students from Access courses. This means that not only is social work training about equipping students to work with disadvantage and discrimination, it is also about working with a significant group of students who are more likely than most, to have personal experience of inequality. Of course Access students do not have a monopoly on disadvantage. In recent years social work has explicitly encouraged non-standard applicants, by promoting vocational routes to training and by encouraging applications from older and experienced candidates (CCETSW ref). All of this adds to a picture of social work students as an educationally diverse group with a wide range of valuable life experiences. It also means that many of those who embark on social work education at undergraduate level, have not grown up with the advantage of assuming that they would one day attend university.

This is a timely moment at which to reflect on the distinctive student composition of many initial social work training programmes. The government’s reform of social work education is well under way. From 2003 the 2 year qualifying diploma in social work will be phased out in favour of a degree level qualification. Entry requirements will be raised and school leavers will be eligible to apply to undergraduate social work programmes for the first time. The raising of the initial qualification, the increased recognition, resources and learning time, which the new degree represents, have been universally welcomed by the social work world.

Widening Participation in Higher Education

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Widening Participation idea is the extent of the consensus it has engendered across political parties and governments during the past 40 years. There have been different emphases, shifting agendas and varying degrees of commitment, but the basic theme of making Higher Education more accessible to more people has remained.

The influential Robbins Committee set up in 1963, famously recommended that:

Courses of Higher Education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability or attainment to pursue them an who wish to do so. (Ref)

The Robbins report signalled the mass expansion of Higher Education, primarily through the setting up of the Open University in 1963 and the rapid development of Polytechnics in the 1960s and 1970s. By 1996 the number of young people entering Higher Education had risen to 30% (Davies et al, 1997) leading the present government to set its ambitious target of 50% of young people under the age of 30 to progress to higher Education by 2010.

The dramatic growth of Higher Education in the UK has been variously analysed (Williams, 1997; Bourgeois et al, 1999; Ward and Steel, 1999; Parnham, 2001). Several writers have pointed out that expansion does not automatically equate with the inclusion of previously excluded groups (Parry and Wake, 1990; Stowell, 1992; Diamond, 1999). Access courses, which began to develop in pockets from the 1970s onwards, were however underpinned by an explicit agenda of social justice (ref). The new programmes sought very specifically to enable mature learners, who had been disadvantaged by a lack of educational opportunity, to enter Higher Education. It was not until 1987 however, that a Department of Education White Paper gave formal recognition to vocational qualifications as the second route in to Higher Education and Access courses as the official third route.

However one characterises the underlying philosophy behind the changes in the tertiary sector, there is no doubt that expansion has necessitated increasing flexibility and diversity in the way in which Higher Education is delivered. The use of flexible learning approaches such as credit transfer, modularisation, part-time routes and distance learning, all indicate a growing responsiveness to the demands and needs of those who use Higher Education. The demands of student consumers have also undermined the traditional notion of a cannon of learning. The modern Higher Education curriculum has adapted not only to the diverse learning needs of its students, but to a society where changes in individual careers, skills and interests are frequent. As Parry and Wake (1990:65) suggest:

It is increasingly less a case of ‘come and study what we have to offer’ than ‘tell us what you need to study and we will try to provide it.

Policy and discourse on widening participation, has recognised the need to include adult learners, some of whom may be returning to education for the second or third time and some for whom education may be newly accessible. The notion of “lifelong learning” has been part of European social policy discourse since its’ adoption as a “master concept” by UNESCO in 1970 (Parnham, 2001). Whilst “lifelong learning” is a somewhat fluid idea, even according to some, a “Holy Grail” representing all things to all people (Diamond, 1999) it is a significant strand within the widening participation debate.

The 1987 White Paper: Higher Education: Meeting the Challenge, specifically invited Higher Education institutions to increase their numbers of adult learners as part of the ongoing programme of expansion. A series of more recent reports have supported the continuing expansion of Higher Education as a means of promoting social inclusion (Kennedy, 1997; Fryer, 1997; DoE, 1998; Fryer, 1999). This trend has been reflected in turn in such policy initiatives as The Learning Age, 1998 and Learning to Succeed, 2000, the setting up of the UK National Advisory committee for Lifelong Learning and various HEFCE initiatives including the Widening Participation Premium.

Whilst the continuing growth and increasing flexibility of Higher Education into the 1990s is clear, the consistency of that responsiveness across the sector is less certain. In spite of a drop of 13% between 1994 and 1998 in those entering Higher Education by the traditional “A” level route (Macdonald and Stratta, 2001) it is clear that the increase in so-called non-standard students has been mainly within the former polytechnics and other “new” universities (National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education, 1997; Universities UK, 1998; 2002). The question of whether this divide heralds the emergence of the “Access University” has inevitably been asked (Ward and Steel 1999:193).

Research has further shown that “A” levels continue to be regarded as the “gold standard” entry qualification and self-evident proof of the ability to benefit from a university education (Thompson, 1997). “A” levels certainly remain the preferred entry requirement of most of the old universities. As the latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show, all but two of the HE institutions admitting more that 200 Access students are “new” universities. (HESA, 2003, on-line)

The new White Paper: The Future of Higher Education (DoES, 2003) includes explicit plans for the continued expansion of Higher Education and the maintenance of the 50% target.

The main aim of Access programmes is to prepare adult learners from non-traditional backgrounds and under-represented groups for admission to undergraduate education.