Discourses of fair access in English higher education

Bowl, Marion and Hughes, Jonathan (2013). Discourses of fair access in English higher education. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 15(4) pp. 7–25.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.5456/WPLL.15.4.7


This paper explores English universities’ responses to widening participation policy developments. It draws on an analysis of Access Agreements submitted to the Office for Fair Access (OfFA) - and publicly-available material produced by eight universities in one region. We analyse how universities from different mission groups present their commitment to widening participation and how this relates to their positioning in a stratified, marketised system. Our analysis reveals that, in spite of government rhetoric, OFFA appears willing to accept a variety of arrangements for offsetting the impact of increased fees on students from under-represented backgrounds. We suggest that a combination of government direction and institutional discretion enables universities to use financial incentives as marketing tools. We conclude that English universities, reflecting the uncertain policy climate and market concerns, are taking a cautious and ambivalent approach to fair access, signalling retreat from higher education as a vehicle for promoting social justice.

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