Assessing Impact and Measuring Success (AIMS) in widening participation research

Project start: February 2014
Project end: September 2015
Project team: Dr Neil Harrison (lead), Dr Richard Waller and
Kathryn Last
Funder: Society for Research into Higher Education

Project summary

This project aims to make progress towards a new consensus on research approaches to assessing the impact (and therefore success) of initiatives designed to widen participation in higher education to groups that are currently under-represented or who have limited patterns of participation. 

This has been a major issue within the sector since the early 2000s and one that has eluded a solution to date.  Specifically, the AIMS Project will explore differences in the conceptualisation of success for different types of initiative, respecting the different modes of delivery. It will highlight issues with the statistical ‘markers’ used to identify the groups of interest and suggest means of reconciling these. It will also investigate which methodologies and methods are most likely to yield results that are useful and compelling to researchers, practitioners, university managers and policymakers.

Research questions

The AIMS Project will advance the national research agenda by drawing on the expertise of key practitioners and academics in the field. The research questions addressed will be:

  • RQ1: What principles should underpin the collection of data to evidence the impact and success of WP activities?  Is there a single epistemological paradigm that should be dominant?
  • RQ2: How are the links between awareness, attitudes, aspirations and behaviour to best be constructed among prospective applicants to higher education?  What are the implications for concepts of success?
  • RQ3: How can the tensions between, and shortcomings within, different markers of widening participation be reconciled?
  • RQ4: Why do some popular widening participation activities appear to have little impact on behaviour?  What are features of successful activities and how might these be measured?

Project strands

The AIMS Project will use a multi-strand approach to triangulate the findings:

  • Strand 1 will comprise an online survey of university Directors of Widening Participation and will collect data on their current criteria for success, the evaluation approaches used (and their reflections on them) and the conflicts that they perceive between the expectations placed on them by university management and government (via the Office for Fair Access). 
  • Strand 2 will comprise semi-structured telephone interviews with all nine former Aimhigher regional co-ordinators, as far as they prove contactable, and will focus on their reflective experiences of a national widening participation initiative and of demonstrating impact with the funds for which they were directly and indirectly responsible.  Strands 1 and 2 will take place concurrently.
  • Strand 3 will occur as a second stage in the project. This will use the data collected above as the basis for a three-iteration Delphi study.  This will use a panel of experts to assess a summary of the data and to move towards a consensus on the research questions through a process of repeated online surveys. The panel will included individuals recruited from the previous strands alongside active researchers and representatives of key stakeholder organisations.

Report 1 Institutional Survey June 2015

SRHE Seminar July 2015

Report 2 - Aimhigher Interviews September 2015

The AIMS Project is kindly funded by a grant from the Society for Research into Higher Education under their 2013 Research Awards programme.

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