Widening participation (WP) is a notion premised on a number of assumptions most of which are themselves founded on ideal of social justice (Keane, 2014) which includes the need to address social inequalities (Crozier, Reay, Clayton, Colliander, & Grinsted, 2008; Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2014) and the establishment of a meritocratic society (Doyle & Griffin, 2012). Few studies into WP question or even state the underlying belief in “the meritocratic paradigm endorsed by democratic societies” (Zimdars, 2007, p. 2) or the egalitarian, democratic. (neo-)liberal and class-less assumptions the drive towards WP implies. These are treated axiomatically as the right for each citizen to develop his or her own individual and social character. Yet, such studies are problematic as they legitimise knowledge beyond the political sphere, and treat values as normative facts. Research into WP needs to acknowledge these assumptions and many more.
Gray (2009) draws upon Robson (2002) and Maxwell (1996) to list four types of studies: exploratory (used when a research field is in its infancy), descriptive (that do not attempt to answer any ‘why’ questions), explanatory (that do attempt the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ questions) and interpretive (which aims to explore humans’ experiences in the topic). Each of these types offer suggestions as to what to investigate and why. Moreover, the assumptions inherent in each study type differ from the assumptions inherent in the topic, and these in turn differ from the assumptions undergirding the research design. Using Carter and Little’s (2007) figure which shows the “simple [sic] relationship between epistemology, methodology and method” (p. 1317), I’d like to offer some suggestions regarding the study of WP.
Figure 1. The simple relationship between epistemology, methodology and method (Carter & Little, 2007)
Carter and Little (2007) argue that the end point of research is the type of knowledge produced. They demonstrate that two very different kinds of epistemology can lead to two very research types and subsequently very different sets of knowledge produced. Likewise in WP studies, a positivist epistemology can be applied to the four study types. For example, a survey research design may be utilised to find out if there is an awareness of WP issues amongst secondary school teachers who prepare pupils for HE (exploratory); two purposefully selected populations’ (i.e. a perceived ‘elite’ school and an HEI in a working class area) number of at-risk students may be tested with a two-tail hypothesis test (descriptive); a multi-variate analysis can be conducted on those populations to look for correlations and possible causation, and if possible causation is identified, those possibilities can be operationalised as variables that are subjected to an observational study (explanatory). However, interpretive (experiential) studies are not amendable to positivist treatments.
Changing the epistemology to that of constructionism, the same study types can result in highly divergent research designs. An exploratory ethnography that involves participant observation of a small group of at-risk secondary school pupils may reveals attitudes about HE that can be researched later. An example of this is when a researcher visits a secondary school and sets up a focus group of at-risk pupils. The researcher uses a mixture of semi-structured interviews and open group discussion to hear the pupils’ attitudes about entry into HE. Let’s say the researcher notes that many of the at-risk pupils are unaware of scholarship availability. The researcher then collects quantitative data from HEIs on the number of applicants from at-risk groups and the overall number of at-risk students. The numbers indicate the possibility that the scholarship information is not being understood by many at-risk secondary school pupils. The researcher then sets up a grounded theory investigation into the attitudes of HE at-risk students and scholarship (non) application as a descriptive study. The grounded theory design also allows for the possibility of an explanatory study. Finally, a phenomenological study into a few selected at-risk scholarship students and non-applicants leads to a richer understanding of the experience of both types.
Carter, S. M., & Little, M. (2007). Justifying Knowledge, Justifying Method, Taking Action: Epistemologies, Methodologies, and Methods in Qualitative Research. Qualitative Health Research, 17(10), 1316–1328. doi:10.1177/1049732307306927
Crozier, G., Reay, D., Clayton, J., Colliander, L., & Grinsted, J. (2008). Different strokes for different folks: diverse students in diverse institutions – experiences of higher education. Research Papers in Education, 23(2), 167–177. doi:10.1080/02671520802048703
Department for Business Innovation and Skills. (2014). Widening participation in higher education, (July). doi:10.1108/00400910410518214
Doyle, M., & Griffin, M. (2012). Raised aspirations and attainment? A review of the impact of Aimhigher (2004–2011) on widening participation in higher education in England. London Review of Education, 10(1), 75–88. doi:10.1080/14748460.2012.659060
Gray, D. E. (2009). Theoretical perspectives and research methodologies. In Doing research in the real world. Los Angeles: Sage.
Keane, E. (2014). Considering the practical implementation of constructivist grounded theory in a study of widening participation in Irish higher education. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 5579(July), 1–17. doi:10.1080/13645579.2014.923622
Zimdars, A. K. (2007). Testing the spill-over hypothesis: Meritocracy in enrolment in postgraduate education. Higher Education, 54(1), 1–19. doi:10.1007/s10734-006-9043-3