Why we should bring widening participation and university outreach into the big careers work tent

I’ve been doing quite a lot of work on widening participation and university outreach recently. One of the things that I have noticed is the fact that WP professionals share a lot of values, skills and attitudes with careers workers. I have also noticed that there are not very strong links between the two groups despite the fact that a fair few people who work in WP and outreach roles have some kind of background in careers.

Of course there are important differences between the two groups as well. Most notably since the end of Aimhigher pretty much everyone who works in WP works for a university. The idea of impartiality is central to the careers profession and the careful line that WP people have to walk between promoting, recruiting and advising is one that careerinistas would struggle with. However, it is also worth noting that the era of unproblematic impartiality is probably long gone and careers professionals have also had to juggle their own impartiality with various targets around graduate employability, NEETs, STEM and so on.

If you boil both roles down it seems pretty clear that they are very similar. Both groups are about supporting individuals to think about their futures, to make purposeful choices and to develop the skills to move towards your desired future. Widening participation necessarily has a strong focus on higher education, but unless it sets the higher education route into a broader context it is miss-serving the individuals that it works with. The goal of raising aspirations is one that is frequently cited by WP practitioners but raising people’s aspirations shouldn’t mean shaping the nature of those aspirations and especially should not mean squeezing them into a higher education framework.

In practice higher education does provide a powerful route for a very wide range of individuals to pursue their aspirations. As the nature of higher education programmes expands it broadens the potential audience but also requires WP practitioners to broaden their knowledge base to keep track of the myriad of progression routes that lead through vocational options into higher education. Meanwhile the conventional careers worker is frequently crying out for more specialised knowledge about the complexity of the HE learning market.

Looking at these two occupations a dispassionate Martian labour market analyst might struggle to see the distinction. The employers are different but the differences between the values and knowledge bases far more subtle. In terms of the array of practice that exists there are clearly further differences but also substantial overlaps and areas where the two groups might learn from each other.

If you are not fiercely aligned to one or other group you might think that this post is just stating the obvious. However, I haven’t heard anyone mention WP practitioners and NEON in the recent discussions about the formation of the Career Development Institute. Similarly I haven’t heard anyone involved in NEON express the idea that their professionalism might be better served as part of a wider grouping. I don’t have an axe to grind on this and I certainly don’t want to get involved in brokering some kind of institutional summit, but I think that my role as an interested observer does at least give me the space to say these things and be told why I’ve got it wrong.

So my position is essentially this. There are a set of activities that are about facilitating individuals to think about and move into their futures. If they are done well they need to focus on the specificity of the individual and to help them to think through how they are going to combine life, learning and work across their lifecourse. I see these activities as a specialised type of education that draws on other disciplines such as counselling, economics, social work and marketing. I call this stuff careers work. It seems to me that careers workers are divided up into lots of little cells and that opportunities for collaboration as well as individual progression and collective representation are lost as a result. Is there not a case to put up a big careers work tent and to see who we can get inside it?

So is this blasphemy? Idiocy? Naïve beyond belief? Or is there a little bit of sense in it?

Over to you?


  1. I think you’re right to draw parallels between the two roles. In my experience good WP programs are core participants in local career networks or even establish their own networks and so have strong links with ???gatekeepers??? in institutions who their target audience attend. I also think that these relationships are strengthened if it is clear and transparent that the gatekeepers are preparing their cohort to determine bias and objectivity in the careers related marketing literature they will encounter. If you get this balance right, then the clients benefit from the opportunities to experience horizon broadening activities but with the suitable preparation so that they objectively as possible consider the routes for themselves.

  2. In practice, many HE careers services are increasingly involved in widening participation and outreach activities.

    The biggest challenge is often the link between these activities and institution-biased marketing. There’s a difference between saying “go to university to further your career potential” and “come to our university”. That’s not a reason to avoid involvement in these activities. If anything, it highlights a need to ensure that careers professionals introduce a disinterested but not uninterested voice into the advice and information given.

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