This paper takes as its focus the contradictory discourse of widening participation (WP). We argue that given the conflicting accounts of WP it is highly unlikely that higher education staff will be able articulate a coherent definition of WP practice. We illustrate our thesis with an institutional case study which analysed policy documents and was based on in-depth interviews with staff. We found that not only did staff have contradictory definitions of WP, but that those who saw themselves as committed questioned the commitment of others. Thus despite institutional rhetoric our participants fell back on personal values when implementing WP activity.