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Durham University

Department of Sociology

Research Projects

Publication details

Boliver, V., Powell, M. & Moreira, T. (2018). Organisational Identity as a Barrier to Widening Access in Scottish Universities. Social Sciences 7(9): 151.

Author(s) from Durham


Widening access policy has historically focused on tackling the socioeconomic barriers to
university access faced by prospective students from under-represented groups, but increasingly
policy makers are seeking to also address the barriers to wider access posed by undergraduate
admissions policies. In this vein, the Scottish Government has recently called upon universities to
set separate academic entry requirements for socioeconomically disadvantaged applicants which
recognise that “the school attainment of disadvantaged learners often does not reflect their full
potential” and which better reflect the minimum needed to succeed in higher education. In this paper,
we draw on in-depth interviews with admissions personnel at eighteen Scottish universities to explore
the scope for more progressive admissions policies of this kind in light of universities’ identities as
organisations and in light of corresponding organisational strategies for position-taking in global
and national higher education fields. We present a theoretical model and an empirical illustration of
three hierarchically-ordered ideal types of organisational identity—globally competitive, nationally
selective, and locally transformative—and show that the more dominant of these tend to constrain
the development of more progressive admissions policies. This is because globally competitive and,
to a lesser extent, nationally selective organisational identities are understood to require admission of
the ‘brightest and best’, conceptualised as those with the highest levels of prior academic attainment
who can be expected to succeed at university and beyond as a matter of course. We conclude that
universities must recognise and redress the implicitly exclusionary nature of their organisational
identities if genuine progress on widening access is to be made.

Department of Sociology