A History of Widening Participation at The University of Manchester

An Interview with Stephanie Lee, Head of Widening Participation and Outreach at The University of Manchester

Widening participation (WP) is something we’re really passionate about at The University of Manchester. We’ve run a number of different activities, initiatives and schemes over the years, many of which continue to this day (hint hint, the Manchester Access Programme) albeit in slightly different forms. Stephanie Lee, our Head of WP and Outreach here at the University, has seen a lot of these developments first hand since she started working here in 2003.

Stephanie comes from a widening participation background herself – neither of her parents attended university – however she chose to study for an undergraduate degree in French and History of Art before pursuing a PGCE and becoming a secondary school teacher in Manchester. And that’s where her story with our University starts! We sat down with her to discuss a history of widening participation at UoM, ranging from the inception of some of our most popular access schemes to supporting students during the pandemic.

What awareness of widening participation was there when you started at The University of Manchester? When you first joined in your role as UG Recruitment and Widening Participation Manager what initiatives were in place to support WP students?

I joined the University in 2003. Before joining The University of Manchester I was a teacher, and I had brought pupils from the school where I taught to the University on their campus visits. They had a scheme called the Targeted Access Scheme, which is a little bit similar to what Gateways is now, but essentially it targeted pupils in Years 9, 10 and 11, providing campus visits and mentoring. I was the link teacher for the Targeted Access Scheme in my school, and I visited the University with my pupils and arranged for the University to come into the school where I worked to talk to pupils and parents, so that’s how I first found out about the work that the University was doing. A lot of national initiatives were developing at the same time, so you had things like Excellence in Cities, which was focussed particularly in urban areas and targeted students who had the potential to go to university but weren’t considering it. This subsequently evolved into the Aimhigher Programme, so there was certainly more activity developing which we now would call “widening participation” activity. The University wanted to grow this area of work and they were particularly keen for somebody with teaching experience to join the widening participation team. I think at the point when I joined it there were two other colleagues – it was a really small team!  There was a colleague who oversaw the summer schools, a colleague who oversaw primary tutoring but also worked on the Open Day, and then I joined and supported with the Targeted Access Scheme for Years 9, 10 and 11. The scheme was only in Manchester, and the schools that we were working in were quite close to the University.

When did the idea for the Manchester Access Programme (MAP) first come about, and how did you help to turn this idea into a reality in 2005?

The idea for MAP came about from working as part of the Targeted Access Scheme. Students who had been on the Targeted Access Scheme and applied to the University would get a guaranteed interview, but what we found was that students were contacting us to say that they’d applied to the University but hadn’t been made an offer or invited to an interview because their predicted grades weren’t in line with the entry requirements. It made us realise that we were doing all this work with young people before they went to sixth form, raising their awareness of university and getting them to think about their options and ambitions, and then when they came to apply to us there was no support there. It became clear that we needed to do more, and so we came up with the concept of the Manchester Access Programme. We worked really closely with colleagues in Teaching and Learning to develop the programme, particularly the academic assignment. I think we were really proud that the programme was rolled out across the whole University in one go, and that it applied to all courses including our most competitive courses of Medicine and Dentistry.

At that point it was more unusual to have an access scheme which started with Year 12 pupils, but we felt it was really important to work with students before they made a decision about what course and what university they wanted to apply to, because once they’ve applied to a university course they’ve already done a lot of that work themselves. We wanted to be there to support students to make those decisions and their best application. Right from the outset the benefits to the students have been the lower offer, the Decision Manchester process which was initially called the Pre-UCAS Form, and the MAP scholarship. The first year we ran it, I was the MAP team! We had 100 students on MAP at the start, and it was always for students across Greater Manchester which was really important to us. We involved colleagues across sixth forms and FE colleges in the development of the programme as well because we wanted to ensure that the timescales and commitment wouldn’t be too burdensome on the students.

How does the MAP from 2005 differ from the programme on offer in 2020?

One of the key differences is the growth and scale of MAP, from 100 students to start with to over 600 students that we recruit now! While some of the delivery might have changed, the actual elements of the programme (the key components being the academic assignment, the University Life Conferences and the workshops which prepare students and the focus around skills) as well as its benefits and principles have stayed the same.

Although access schemes make up a significant part of our widening participation work, there are plenty of other outreach activities that the University delivers. What other initiatives have been particularly successful over the years?

The University has had contextual admissions in place for a long time, but we have only recently used it to make lower offers. Contextual data and information could be used by academic schools to identify students from widening participation backgrounds through the admissions cycle so they might give them added consideration for interview or when looking at their personal statement, but really the big change came in for 2019 entry and making a lower offer for students.

The whole concept of Access Manchester is a really important development too. The schemes (MAP, MDAS, contextual admissions, school based access initiatives such as Pathways to Law) had existed for years, but following feedback from teachers, advisors and staff at the University about how the schemes fit together, we created Access Manchester. Now, with Access Manchester, you have a range of different programmes which are targeted at different age groups and different subject areas, but it’s much easier for a student to go in and assess which programmes are applicable to them. I get lots of enquiries directly from students about our access schemes so it’s great to be able to send them to one place!

The work that we do for specific target groups has developed as well. Our work with care experienced students, and more recently estranged students (for example signing up to the Stand Alone Pledge), support for disabled students, and support for students from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds has led us to think about the particular needs of different groups of students and how we can best support and address some of the gaps in progression of those students.

Finally, the partnership working has significantly developed since I started working in WP. Universities are working more closely with further education colleges as we do through the Greater Manchester Higher partnership, but they are also working more closely with education charities like IntoUniversity and the Brilliant Club. There are a number of education charities that we have really great links with who are delivering things we wouldn’t be able to do on our own, and that kind of partnership working is really important because it helps us to do something different, particularly when you look at IntoUniversity having a physical presence in the community for example, or the reach that we’re able to have with the Brilliant Club as they work in a much wider geographical area than we might tend to.

How has the philosophy of widening participation at the University developed over the course of the last fifteen years?

Along with the whole higher education sector, the focus isn’t just about getting students in but getting students on. We’re looking much more carefully at the outcomes of current students, for example do they stay on course, what type of degree do they get, and what job do they go onto. We’re doing a lot more work in postgraduate study too. It’s a much newer area of work for the sector – thinking about what widening participation looks like at postgraduate level – but I think that’s a really interesting and important development, particularly when you consider the academic pipeline and the added benefit and value that a postgraduate or master’s qualification can bring to students within the job market. I also think that the kind of visibility and priority that’s given to widening participation has increased. Some of that is to do with the regulatory requirements, but the University has a very clear goal around social responsibility and its teaching and learning priorities to remove and reduce barriers for students as well, and this is very clearly within the University’s strategic visions and goals.

Lockdown and the ongoing pandemic was, and still is, a very tricky time for both current and prospective students. In what ways has the University supported WP students during the pandemic?

In terms of pre-university students, we have been trying as much as we can to keep our work going and converting to online delivery where possible. We have been looking at different ways to engage with teachers, young people, and parents and carers, so a huge amount of work has been done by the team to try and maintain some meaningful interaction – I think it’s easy to put lots of material and resources online but engaging students and making that exchange meaningful can be really challenging. The team have been really creative in doing that, and staff across the University have continued to work with schools and young people in that way, which I think is really important. For current students, we have increased the hardship fund, we have been providing laptop loans and Wi-Fi access, working on the Assessment Pledge… thinking about how the current situation is impacting students and then trying to remove some of that pressure on them.

What are some of the best moments you can remember from your time working in widening participation at Manchester?

I think the best thing is always seeing the young people and prospective students that you’ve had contact with actually come to the University or be successful in whatever they set out to do. Seeing Manchester Access Programme students now in graduate jobs, whether they’re doctors, teachers, lawyers… they sometimes get in touch and say that it’s down to MAP that they are where they are now, so that’s really rewarding to see the progression of those students come through the programme.