What do we mean when we say ‘Outreach’?
By Tom Pinder
It’s fair to say that there is a certain impenetrability to language within Higher Education. Between the acronyms, initialisms, and specialist terms it can get confusing even from inside the sector, let alone when those from other areas come into contact with it. To the lay person it can be a bit of a nightmare trying to separate your UCAS from AGCAS, pronouncing various qualifications (you only make the ‘Beng’ mistake for a ‘BEng’ once), or getting to grips with the fact that ‘Conflict Studies’ and ‘Peace Studies’ are ostensibly the same subject.
Clarity of message and meaning are essential in communication, from the longest piece of content to just a single word. Nowhere is this more apparent than when universities talk about outreach. What do we mean when we talk about outreach, how does that differ from how it’s understood outside the sector (and, in some instances, in other parts of the sector too), and how can we be better at communicating our intended meaning?
Outreach as we understand it fundamentally applies to a specific area of student recruitment and this is where the bulk of the confusion arises. Most universities with a central student recruitment team and process will use outreach in relation to their widening participation (WP) agenda. This agenda will vary from institution to institution, but broadly encompasses the student recruitment practices engineered towards ensuring students who would not traditionally consider university as an option, for myriad reasons, see it as a viable choice for their future.
This practice is part of the overall student recruitment cycle for an institution but is often funded separately as regional initiatives in conjunction with other universities. Wide-ranging, this includes works as varied as sessions in local primary and secondary schools at the early stage of a child’s education, through to more targeted engagement with university-ready students in historically underrepresented areas, such as BAME students, first-in-family enrolees, students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, and more.
However, what tends to be the case outside of the sector is that all student recruitment is understood as outreach, with UCAS fairs, postgraduate recruitment, and WP all being lumped in together. Semantically, it’s understandable, outreach means just that, to reach out, making no distinction as to who precisely is being reached out to (perversely, this is frequently the problem with all jargon, it arguably obscures meaning and decreases comprehension despite its intended function of supposedly increasing understanding and efficiency. If you’ve got a spare hour let the inimitable Jonathan Meades walk you through exactly why that is. Quick warning, the video contains strong language throughout). That’s why we need to ensure that how we talk about ourselves is how others also talk about us and understand us, and that stems from constructing a clear, concise, and uncomplicated message through the words and images we choose.
Even within institutions the word is poorly communicated. Academics usually lean more towards the broader definition, and it’s not uncommon to find different working definitions being applied within faculty/departmental recruitment and marketing teams, to say nothing of the work done and its linguistic usage by business development partners et al. Simply put, in its current form, this is not an easily understood, but all too readily employed, word.
The onus, therefore, falls on those who wish to take the greatest ownership of outreach, and I’d like to see outreach/WP teams claim the term as their own. Simple university wide communications could start the process, with the potential for sessions to follow within departments where the team can evidence some of the work they’re doing and the impact it is having, at institution level, within that specific department, and within the wider community. Not only would this help promote an internal culture shift towards a better understanding and usage of the word, but also provides a platform for the outreach/WP team to showcase and celebrate their successes, highlighting the great work they are doing to the rest of the university. Communicating this to external business will take longer, but creating a solid foundation in-house first goes a long way to making that second phase much smoother. A consensus and consistency of message is what is required for long term understanding and usage, an adage equally applicable to the overall process of effectively communicating the entirety of your university brand.
It’s important that we understand the power of the words we use and retain the weight behind the terminology because otherwise we run the risk of homogenising the fantastic work universities do in providing experiences for students from all walks of life. The work done by those in outreach has ramifications far beyond application and enrolment numbers, providing aspirational pathways for individuals who may previously have felt disenfranchised, forgotten, or potentially not even realised they could attend university in the first place. This is not to underestimate the hard work done in more traditional student recruitment, rather to emphasise that through outreach there exists an incredibly important avenue that affords opportunities to those who otherwise may not get them, and that is something worth preserving and protecting.