In this paper, we draw on evidence from our current research4 to revisit the metaphorical concept of ‘barriers’ to participation and to how how our data disrupts the rather ‘cosy’ and somewhat tautological relationship between barriers as explanation and solution for the under-representation in HE of certain groups. We do this by drawing on two contrasting sources of interview data and approaches to conducting interviews. First we briefly outline the perspectives of policy and practice stakeholders in WP in HE, which confirms that the discourse of barriers is central to their understanding of ‘nonparticipation’ and how to reduce it. Second we introduce findings from two case studies. Each case study consists of interviews with an individual aged over 21 who has the qualifications (level 3) to enter HE but who has not (yet) done so, as well as members of his or her self-nominated ‘networks of intimacy’ consisting of friends and family. The language of barriers is much less explicit in these interviewees’ accounts of their educational, career and personal histories and the influences on their decisions. In the final section of the paper, we outline a range of provisional conclusions which we hope to develop as the study and our analysis progress. However, before turning to the data,the next section introduces the research project.