Updated: Aug 7, 2022
By Dr Natalie S Murray MBChB BSc, F3 London.
Widening participation programmes have rightfully been an increasingly important part of university student recruitment for some time now. As highlighted by WPMN, great strides have been made in this area however we have to ask the question of whether students from widening participation (WP) backgrounds feel supported throughout their courses. This blog post serves to ask a question and create conversation; the answer will be unique to every student.
By definition, students recruited through WP programmes come from backgrounds which are relatively ‘disadvantaged’ as they a) possess fewer resources or b) have added stresses and responsibilities which are above those of their equivalent peers. Whilst these experiences can actually offer benefits in nurturing positive skills and providing perspective which can help WP students succeed in their career aims, these students are essentially setting off
from a different starting-point and so
deserve support in their university careers.
But what does that support look like? Practical, financial, emotional… The answer to this will be different for everyone and so the ideal university support programmes would have personalised support easily accessed through existing structures, initiatives, staff and resources. Many students find support through university societies, building a routine and friends or course-peers. However, I would argue that if universities are recruiting through WP programmes, they have the responsibility to provide support services to such students to achieve the collective overall aim of equity in educational opportunity.
This responsibility stems from the question that I ask myself: is it ethical for universities to seek to know whether someone identifies as being from a WP background, and often specifically actively recruit them, without seeking to then provide them with support during their course? Some universities may argue that their recruitment process in itself (offering contextual offers in some cases, for example) is support in itself but I would argue that their responsibility extends throughout the length of the course.
In medical school, we learned about Wilson and Jungner’s principles of screening which are criteria that should be met to allow a screening programme to be run. Whilst these criteria were designed for population health screening, one of the key questions that I think is relevant to ‘screening for’ WP students relates to their criterion number 2: is there an accepted treatment? i.e. is there is a good intervention? One might argue that it is unethical to have systems in place to identify and enroll a relatively ‘disadvantaged’ group without offering any support to them once they have been recruited.
An example I would like to discuss stems from my own experience of entering university as a young adult carer from a low-income background. Young adult carers are people aged 16-25 who have unpaid caring responsibilities for someone with a mental or physical illness, disability or addiction; often a parent or sibling but extending to include wider family or friends. This care can take many forms including practical, personal, emotional and financial. There are 376,000 identified young adults carers in the UK (and up to 800,000 young carers aged 5-17) with financial support in the form of a carer’s allowance only being available from aged 16. This is essentially a hugely valuable, yet largely unrecognised, workforce. Understandably, young carers may not wish to disclose information about their caring responsibilities due to stigma as well as concern for the potential destabilisation of an often well-functioning informal care agreement between the young person and their dependent. This also may impact on their decision whether or not to attend university and they may feel their caring roles prevent them from attending at all. 29% of young adult carers drop out of college/university because of their caring role; this is four times greater than the national average.
Interestingly in 2018 in response to a campaign led by a student carer, Carol Hayward, UCAS introduced a tick box for young adult carers to identify themselves in the recruitment process. Since then, initiatives such as the ‘Going Further for Student Carers’ award in Scotland, the ‘Carer Passport’ scheme and resources such as ‘Supporting students with caring responsibilities’ from the Carers Trust have come to be offered to universities. However there is currently no requirement for universities to evidence their support of young carers and experiences across the country are undoubtedly very variable.
People from WP backgrounds shouldn’t need to have to highlight their need for support, as the WP programmes across the country already acknowledge that they are recruiting from a potentially more vulnerable group and so should be supporting them. Universities often have a set pot of funding for WP, usually focused on recruitment. Whilst some will do well at supporting their WP students (and it would be great to hear examples if you have them!) others, for various reasons, might not yet be offering what we would consider acceptable standards of support. University gives you a voice, a vote and a platform and I would implore you to ask ‘What is my university doing to support me, and what should it be doing?’ By asking this question, we can engage our universities in not only opening its doors for students from WP backgrounds but crucially, supporting their journeys through their university careers as well.