Do we need a stronger ‘business case’ for widening participation in UK Higher Education?

Widening participation (WP) is a strategy used by universities to attract student populations who have traditionally had lesser access to Higher Education, and to support their access, studies and employability. Universities’ commitment to equality and diversity is also influenced by the Equality Act 2010, which protects students (and staff) on the basis of their age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage/ civil partnership, and pregnancy/ maternity.

All universities will, no doubt, have a moral imperative to engage with WP, equality and diversity, providing excellent learning opportunities for all students. However, support of WP students is constrained by financial and emotional resource limitations too. Sometimes only a few protected characteristics receive full attention. Moreover, the use of categorical terms such as ‘women’ and ‘black’ sometimes leaves little space for nuance, in-between identities and the intersections of multiple WP backgrounds.


Image of a UAL project with an intersectional approach to race, sexual orientation and gender identity. More info on the project and artists: Image source: Shades of Noir.

Even if there’s a WP budget, sooner or later, it becomes clear that truly successful WP needs much more work than was initially planned and (financially) accounted for. Arguably, a business case could help provide structure to WP activities, once decision makers have defined the aims of those activities. Traditionally, a business case describes the commercial benefits of a project, which are the reasons to go forward with it. In business cases for equality and diversity, commercial benefits are aligned with a moral imperative, which often also involves describing legal frameworks.

For example, some leading global companies make a business case for LGBT inclusion. The benefits of internal and external LGBT inclusion activities are described, as well potential risks, such as in countries where homosexuality is illegal.

In 2014, the Royal Society commissioned research to establish a business case for diversity in STEMM professions. The business cases provide an extensive argumentation of the benefits of equality and diversity, which may provide little evidence of commercial benefits, but can turn out very helpful in convincing stakeholders. Could such business cases also be helpful in UK Higher Education?


Me attending a conference on children’s rights in the Caribbean (2013, Leiden University), not being the ‘white’ majority for once. Photo: NOS.

Clearly, making a profit (for shareholders) is not an objective for educational institutions, but revenue does underpin every action taken. Student numbers (UK and international), good results in national assessment frameworks (TEF/REF) and a strong ‘corporate brand’ are essential for an institution’s healthy finances. There is no evidence that WP benefits the financial interests of universities, though an increase in their brand value may be appealing and beneficial. Financial benefits can never be the sole reason for universities to facilitate WP activities, but it is likely that WP costs are already evaluated in terms of their ‘non-monetary’ revenue.

Equality legislation and government policies are, besides a moral imperative and an ongoing ‘market value’, a third reason for universities to engage with diversity, equality and WP activities. From this year on, UK universities are obliged to publish data on gender pay gaps, which may be the only way to achieve equal pay regardless of gender. Revenue for universities could be that those that perform well on this matter attract more excellence and more ‘women’.

For students, discrimination-free education is a right. Some arts universities are taking action to remove the ‘white’ ‘Western’ bias in their curricula, in response to attainments gaps between ‘white’ and ‘BAME’ (British Asian Minority Ethnic) students, as well as between UK and international students, the latter being an important source of income. In these two examples above, universities’ moral imperative, legal obligations and economic reasoning are probably connected to each other. Describing those connections in business cases could help university staff working for WP.


The Royal Society produced an animation about unconscious bias. Click on this link to watch it on YouTube. Image source: The Royal Society.

A solid WP business case could communicate the different purposes of WP, attracting commitment from multiple internal stakeholders. If commitment to WP were truly incorporated into the universities’ business operational processes, WP programmes could probably be more effective. Perhaps it is a bit unfortunate that an increasing focus on WP in universities coincides with a growing neoliberal outlook. One can expect resistance to the use of corporate language and tools from staff who, in principle, support equality and diversity.

I personally don’t see another way forward than combining the moral, legislative and economic reasoning for implementing successful WP. This would help draw attention to the importance of economic conditions, rather than perpetuate the moral narrative that, in reality, still benefits only a few.


A visual aid that accompanies the ASSET 2016 report (ECU), which provides data on gender equality in STEMM academia, including ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and age. Image source: ECU.


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