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Widening Participation to Higher Education for Adult Learners: The Past Matters.

Fowle, Wendy (2022). Widening Participation to Higher Education for Adult Learners: The Past Matters. EdD thesis The Open University.


The study explores the concept of transformative learning within the context of widening participation (WP) to higher education (HE) for adult learners. It brings together the domains of adult education, lifelong learning, adult learning and widening participation. The research questioned the extent to which approaches to WP to HE effectively meet the needs of adult learners. Sub-questions explored how past educational experiences impact on adult learners and how the perceptions of adult learners could impact approaches to WP. Within the theoretical concept of transformative learning theory (Mezirow, 1991) I adopted a qualitative, interpretative method of enquiry through semi-structured interviews within the case study of adult learners engaged in a WP programme. I use the theoretical frameworks of transformative learning theory and critical pedagogy (Freire, 1972; hooks, 1994) alongside models of learning adopted by Illeris (2017) and Jarvis (2006) to reflect on their applicability to the case study. Semi-structured interviews were undertaken with students who had engaged with preparatory and introductory HE courses. I was able to draw on my professional experience of embedding policy into practice to support adult learners into HE, recognising their distinct characteristics (McGivney, 1990; Stuart and Thomson, 1995; McGivney, 1996; Bamber and Tett, 2000), multiple identities (Waller, 2006; Butcher, 2015b; Mallman and Lee, 2016) and past experiences of education (Merrill, 2004; Askham, 2008; Goodchild, 2017). The main findings suggest that issues experienced as participants returned to learning were similar to those that they experienced during compulsory education, despite dedicated WP programmes. Findings suggest that pedagogical as well as dispositional, structural, institutional and situational barriers (Gorard, 2006) should be considered when supporting adult learners in and through their HE learning journey. In addition, the discourse around WP aimed at school children could reflect the concept of ‘lifelong participation’, whereby individual aspirations are positioned equally alongside those of WP practitioners.


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