Precarity and praxis in 'raising aspiration' and evaluating widening participation

Almost a decade ago the Bradley Review of Higher Education asserted that university needed to be put on the 'radar screen' of young people from low socio-economic backgrounds (2008, 40), and from 2010 the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) has provided funding for Australian universities to 'raise aspiration' amongst identified cohorts. Underpinned by utilitarian discourses of human capital and individual capacitation, these resources have reshaped university engagement practices and created a professional workforce of widening participation practitioners. Researchers have widely critiqued the deficit discourses that underpin these initiatives, for obscuring broader social inequalities and institutional practices of misrecognition and exclusion, and for disregarding the complex dynamic, embodied, imaginative and affective dimensions of aspiration and the socio-cultural and material practices entailed (e.g. Burke, 2012; Harwood, Hickey-Moody, McMahon & O'Shea, 2017; Zipin, Sellar, Brennan & Gale, 2015).

The four papers in this symposium turn to the micro-practices and micro-politics of widening participation as they operate within and across institutional spaces. Paper 1 (Harwood & Hickey-Moody) explores how young people with precarious relationships to education imagine university, and recommends transforming practices through new 'ecologies of learning'. Papers 2, 3 and 4 turn to widening participation practitioners within universities and the current university students who work with them. Whilst these subjects may be considered merely part of the apparatus of delivery for widening participation programs, these papers considers them as crucial components of these 'ecologies of learning' required for developing viable and imaginable pathways to university for students from backgrounds of plural disadvantage. Papers 2 and 3 (Gannon, Ullman, Tracey) report on a mixed method evaluation conducted for the WSU Office of Widening Participation, designed to ascertain the impacts and effects of widening participation programs on the Student Ambassadors working within them. The evidence architectures of the university mean that statistical measurement of change is part of the story that OWP needs to tell about its work to the university hierarchy. Thus Paper 2 reports on the quantitative component of the study, where Student Ambassadors anonymously self-reported on a series of scales demonstrating significant change in their connectedness to higher education. Paper 3 explores data from face-to-face interviews foregrounding the affective, embodied, spatial and relational aspects of aspiration discourses entailed in widening participation. Extending beyond conventional evaluative approaches, Paper 4 (Burke & Lumb) presents an inclusive and participatory praxis-based framework for evaluation of equity in higher education.