What are risks and opportunities for widening participation on the Journey to a Million?

Susie Whigham, Interim Chief Executive Officer, The Brilliant Club, examines the risks and opportunities for widening participation on the Journey to a Million.
As student applications rise in the coming years, so will the pressure on widening participation departments across the higher education sector. The Fair Education Alliance’s Report Card for 2022 found that the gap between less advantaged students and their peers is widening, that regional disparities are deepening, and that socio-economic status still significantly impacts post-16 education.But the Journey to a Million also tells us that this is a growing sector, with a 30% increase in university applications expected by 2030 from the 2022 cycle. Universities are essential drivers of social mobility. As student numbers rise, how can universities ensure that a ‘bottleneck’ of applications does not further entrench inequality by preventing less advantaged students from attending university? 

Place matters

High-quality information, advice and guidance on pathways to university and available support is an essential bedrock to widening participation. With the impact of the cost-of-living crisis and lost learning from the pandemic, the demands on schools are huge. Teachers don’t have time to shop around for the most relevant and up-to-date information for their students and parents/carers. Resources such as the forthcoming UCAS Outreach Connection Service can provide an essential ‘one-stop shop’ for schools and parents. 

However, we can’t have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to widening participation if we are going to ensure less advantaged students don’t lose out with the surge in applicants. Place plays a significant role in the life chances of young people from under-represented backgrounds. As part of their civic mission, universities need to actively listen to and engage with their local communities. This means working in partnership with schools, third sector partners and communities to identify the local barriers to young people reaching their educational potential and tailoring outreach activity to meet this need. It needs buy-in at the top level in both schools and universities to ensure there is a commitment to making sustained, lasting change.  

Importantly, community engagement shouldn’t be about doing things ‘to’ a community, but with them so that parents and community leaders have the voice and the power to make change themselves. For example, The Brilliant Club’s Parent Power programme empowers parents and carers to make change for their children’s futures by coming together and using community organising skills to tackle the barriers to their children reaching their educational potential.


Supporting students to reach their educational potential must be at the core of widening participation initiatives. We know that students from less-advantaged backgrounds are 18 months behind their more advantaged peers by the time they take their GCSEs.ii In April, the Department for Education consulted on its proposals to reintroduce student caps and establish a requirement that students must have at least a C grade in English and Maths in order to qualify for student finance. If these proposals go ahead, it will mean that attainment-raising will be even more important when there is a squeeze on places.

These proposals might have a significant impact on young people’s chances of progressing to university, as attainment is the biggest predictor of whether a student will access higher education. In 2030, a million applicants might be judged on their academic ability at fifteen and sixteen years old. For young people from less advantaged backgrounds, this means an additional barrier to cross at an even earlier age. Universities must work in partnership with schools at a local level to identify how best they can support schools to drive educational attainment for these students and ensure that interventions are not too late to make a tangible difference on attainment. 


Even if a young person from a less advantaged background is on track to get the grades for university, this does not mean that they will necessarily consider university as the right path for them. There is a risk that families who don’t have a history of accessing higher education will be put off by unhelpful narratives in the media questioning the value of university, the challenges of getting in and the quality of the university experience as demand increases. Government and the wider education sector need to present a compelling narrative about the overwhelming benefits of a university education. In the UK today, graduates from the most competitive universities are more likely to access professional careers, earning on average £10,000 more per year than their peers and, most importantly, have higher rates of life satisfaction.iii 

Furthermore, research shows that it is not lack of aspiration that acts as a barrier to university access, but a lack of self-efficacy — the belief in one’s ability to develop the knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to succeed.  Universities need to provide tangible experiences of university life and learning for under-represented young people throughout their school career, which, in turn, will show them that they belong there, and start preparing them to succeed on campus.  


Widening participation in the face of increasing demand is essential but universities should not only focus on getting less advantaged students through the door. In recent years, a growing body of research has highlighted the inequalities that exist at undergraduate level. Less advantaged students are less likely to get good grades in their first year, more likely to drop out before their second year and less likely to graduate with a 1st or 2:1 in their final degree.iv A risk posed by the Journey to a Million is that students will struggle to feel that important sense of belonging and will be unable to access academic and pastoral support as easily in the crucial first few months at university. 
A positive transition to higher education requires effective collaboration between schools and universities, building on the good practice we see in primary to secondary school transition. Initiatives like Join the Dots (developed by The Reach Foundation, London Academy of Excellence and The Brilliant Club) are an important way of bridging the gap between school and university, enabling students, schools, and universities to share knowledge and set goals for a successful transition and creating small communities of learners in the first term at university to foster a sense of belonging. 


The Journey to a Million presents new challenges to the university community — it threatens to stretch university budgets, crowd student halls, and decrease the staff to student ratio. Though universities may be more stretched in terms of time, capacity, and funding, it is essential that they redouble efforts to break down the barriers holding back underrepresented young people from entering and succeeding in higher education. This can’t be done in isolation. It requires taking an evidence-based approach to identifying best practice and meaningful collaboration with schools, communities and the third sector to tailor interventions to meet the specific needs of the local communities they are serving.

iThe Fair Education Alliance (2022), Report Card 2022: Achieving a Fair Education in England’. We could also refer to this report, which states that the gap in progression rates for the most disadvantaged is growing: Department for Education (2022), Widening participation in higher education, Academic Year 2020/21.

iiEducation Policy Institute (2020), Education in England: Annual Report 2020.

iiiDepartment for Education (2019), Graduates continue to benefit with higher earnings.

ivOffice for Students (April 2022), Schools, attainment, and the role of higher education.

Susie Whigham

Interim Chief Executive Officer, The Brilliant Club

As Chief Programmes and Communities Officer at The Brilliant Club, Susie leads the development and implementation of programmes which support underrepresented students to progress to the most competitive universities and succeed when they are there. Over the last year, Susie acted as Interim CEO of The Brilliant Club. 

Prior to this, Susie was Executive Director of Services at School-Home Support where she led a range of programmes tackling the barriers to learning within the home, including chairing the National Home School Development Group to promote parental engagement in education. Susie started her career on the first cohort of Teach First. 

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