Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

The Widening Participation Agenda in German Higher Education: Discourses and Legitimizing Strategies

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Abstract:  Although participation in higher education (HE) has expanded in Europe, social inequalities remain a major political challenge. As HE expansion has not led to equal access and success, the mechanisms behind policies seeking to reduce inequalities need to be examined. Focusing on the widening participation agenda, this article investigates how universities translate political demands to their local contexts. The translation perspective is adopted to study the German HE system as an example characterized by high social exclusion. Based on policy document analysis, the study first explores the rationales underlying the discourse on widening participation. Second, a multiple case study design is used to investigate the organizational responses to the demand of widening participation. The findings indicate that the political discourse is dominated by two perspectives that regard widening participation as either a means to bring about social justice or to ensure a reliable pool of skilled labor. The study further reveals that different legitimizing strategies serve to link the policy of widening participation to local contexts. This study contributes to research on social inequalities in HE by introducing a translation perspective that permits analysis at both macro and organizational levels, while acknowledging institutional variations in organizational responses to political demands.

Keywords:  German higher education; legitimizing strategies; policy discourse; qualitative content analysis; Scandinavian institutionalism; translation perspective; widening participation



© Julia Mergner, Liudvika Leišytė, Elke Bosse. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.