Widening participation students

Who are widening participation students?

This includes:

  • The first generation of your family to go to university
  • From an area with low participation in higher education (e.g. POLAR1. POLAR42, TUNDRA3)
  • Low socio-economic status (e.g. students who were on free school meals4).

Are they at increased risk of mental health problems?

Research from Kings College London found students from underrepresented groups less likely to feel they belonged at university. They also scored higher for issues such as negative emotions and stress – although only at the beginning and end of the academic year, not in the middle. However, conversely, they had significantly lower scores on neuroticism, which is often associated with worse mental health outcomes5.
They often face greater financial pressures6. This means they are more likely to have to take on part time jobs, putting more pressure on both their academic and social lives.
However, hard evidence that widening participation students are at greater risk of mental health problems is sometimes limited - and they may have had to overcome more obstacles to secure a university place and so have developed greater resilience.
Issues other than socio-economic status can also influence mental health. For instance, female students and LGBTQ+ students appear to experience above average levels of mental distress at university.

Some (often middle-class) students may be at increased risk too, for instance as a result of overprotective  ‘helicopter parents’- swooping down to protect them at the first hint of a problem7. Adjusting to living independently at university may be more challenging for them, increasing the risk of mental distress.
What can be done to reduce the risk for widening participation students?
Some Universities have set up peer support groups. For example, Oxford’s recent Class Act Campaign. Similarly, a number of universities have student union officers appointed to help bridge the class gap.
The Sutton Trust reports that 44.9% of students from the lowest social economic class live with their parents compared to only 13.1% of students in the highest social class8. This pragmatic response can significantly reduce financial pressures and provide useful family support – although perhaps increasing commuting costs, limiting choice of university and increasing isolation from fellow students9.

Schools may also have an important potential role to play in preparing widening participation students for the social, academic and cultural transition to university, according to US research10.


  • Widening participation students can face a range of challenges in making a successful transition to university.
  • This may increase the risk of mental health problems – although overcoming challenges may also have increased resilience.
  • Peer support, living at home and more action by schools to prepare students for life at university may all help ease the transition.
  • However, there is also evidence that over-protected (often middle-class) students are at increased risk.
  • There is probably stronger evidence that female and LGBTQ+ students are at risk of mental health problems, which cuts across socio-economic divides.

Elizabeth Walters July 2020

This article first appeared as a blog on the website of SMARTEN, a national research network funded by UK Research and Innovation, focusing on Student Mental Health in Higher Education.  


1. Office for Students (2019) ‘Young participation by area’, Available at: 

2. Office for Students (2019) ‘Young participation by area’, Available at: 

3. Office for Students (2019) ‘Young participation by area’, Available at: 

4. Fullfact (2017) Social Mobility and universities, Available at: 

5. Canning et al. (2018) KCLxBIT Project Report 2015-2017, Available at: 

6. Bradley et al. (2013) The Paired Peers Project (2010-2013), Available at: https://www.bristol.ac.uk/media-library/sites/spais/migrated/documents/report.pdf)

7. Michael Baber (2019) Helicopter Parenting, Available at: 

8. Eleanor Busby (2018) Poorer students three times more likely to live at home while at university, study says,  Available at: 

9. Paul Ellet (2018) Student accommodation guide #4: living at home, Available at: 

10. Anthony Jack (2019) The Privileged Poor How, Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students: Harvard University Press 2019 ISBN-13: 978-0674976894