In the Lab: The challenges of Widening Participation

Important KPIs in our Access Agreement with HEFCE mean that a broad range of departments here at Surrey are drawing together ‘to discuss current initiatives to address differential performance of disadvantaged Widening Participation (WP) groups’. The Business insights Lab was overflowing recently as Dr Ben Shenoy ran a Lab focused on broadening the reach of WP interventions, which are moving on from – and building on – initial goals around Access to Progression (Retention), Degree Attainment, and Employability.

But where to begin? With numerous stakeholders including Student Services & Administration, Recruitment & Admissions, Learning & Teaching, the Students’ Union, and WellBeing – to name only a handful – the only solution was to get everyone clustered in workgroups around our giant whiteboards, armed with pens and post-its, mixing up ideas, departments, and perspectives. The Lab is the only space on campus dedicated to ‘discovery-led collaboration’, an approach that is delivering workable results for a range of initiatives. Community engagement and development is a fast-growing focus area for the Uni, and we are seeing more and more groups eager to tackle their most pressing issues from this angle.

How to cater for the WP group of students, and what it means for how we engage them, falls under the description of a ‘wicked problem’ — one that’s intractable, systemic, and features interconnected and tangled issues that vie for importance. It’s a problem that’s almost impossible to address, because no one knows where to start.

This makes the Lab a canvas for anything that:

  • Features a complex and ambiguous topic;
  • Is multi-disciplinary and requires many different types of actors;
  • Confronts uncertainty through iterative experimentation to generate insight rapidly;
  • Uses collaborative/interactive working to foster active learning; and
  • Has potential for considerable Impact.

After a plenary session that allowed for introductions and overviews from each stakeholder, Ben gave a simple dictum: break up into workgroups and answer the question, ‘What do we need to be doing that we are not doing now?’

‘This is the start of a process,’ he explained. ‘We are going to build a living document for WP that can be used to manage day to day. This is a tried and tested approach that we’ve implemented in other parts of the University, and the Lab is simply the best environment to bring it to life for everyone.’

Are you facing a ‘wicked problem’? Get in touch with us to find out more about Discovery-Led Collaboration.

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About the Author : Kris Henley

Communications and Outreach for Surrey Business School's Centre for the Digital Economy, a newly-founded research centre to explore the implications of the Digital Economy for business, government and society.