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Developments in HE show the sector needs a new unity of purpose

Professor Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Staffordshire, reflects on the messages arising from a week of higher education news.

 

Once again the headlines have been primarily focused on unconditional offers, but I think this issue has had enough airtime and the sector is responding and so I will make no further comment.

I want to start with last Sunday – Holocaust Memorial Day. After participating late last year in the Lessons from Auschwitz Universities project it had particular resonance for me. I was particularly saddened to read in the Independent that Holocaust denial is increasing amongst the younger generation and that anti-semitic incidents have been reported in 19 Universities between 2015 and 2017. At the event to remember all those that suffered and continue to suffer, held at Staffordshire University, I was keen to lead the day with reference to inclusivity. We are a community that welcomes and supports people from all parts of society. We must take learning from the past and the horrors that millions of people suffered to inform our future and ensure that we do not stand-by whilst such atrocities are taking place.

On that theme there have been many headlines that will impact on our University where we promote and enable social mobility. In the Guardian this week David Latchman from Birkbeck, University of London, commented on the leak from the Augar review that applicants with less than 3 Ds at A level may not be able to access loans. He pointed out the devastating impact that this would have on mature students. 33 per cent of our full-time undergraduate students are mature and most do not have A levels. We have a progression scheme with the YMCA and a Step Ahead programme to support transition into Higher Education. Through these routes we recruit some students who have disengaged with society and some who have faced severe adversity in their lives. They leave us with a respected qualification, confidence and make a valued contribution to our society and to the workforce. 

I am co-Chair of the Opportunity Area Partnership Board working together to improve the life chances of our children and young people in Stoke-on-Trent. Our schools are facing many challenges and we are driving improvements in performance and outcomes. We know that only 28 per cent of our school and college leavers go to University against a national average of 49 per cent. Do we want to fail these young people again by denying them opportunity to go into Higher Education if they don’t achieve the required 3 Ds?

Stoke-on-Trent has been named the capital of Brexit with 69 per cent of votes to leave the EU.  It is vital therefore that we as a University continue to focus on internationalising our student population and trying to ensure that our students and graduates are ‘global’ citizens who celebrate and welcome all nationalities and cultures and who can thrive in a multi-cultural society. 

56 per cent of our students are commuters and we recognise that many of them do not have the social capital or social networks that are needed for their future. We try to enable the opportunity to enhance their experience through studies or work experience overseas. With news that funding for Erasmus+ placements currently have no commitment from Government in a No Deal Brexit scenario and in the light of the predicted reduction in funding, these activities may be under threat.

The BME progression and attainment gap was highlighted in universities and science minister Chris Skidmore’s first speech and the Department for Education has said that change will be driven through the reporting of ethnic gaps in admissions and attainment data. The difference in performance between institutions is notable with Kings College London this week reporting a gap of 3.8 per cent. It was reported that only 56 per cent of black students nationally achieved a first or 2:1 compared to their white peers where 80 per cent achieved a good honours degree. It was pleasing therefore to see the Guardian considering equality with a focus on decolonising the curriculum including, for example, more non-white writers. We can and should all do so much better. I am interested in the interventions and support that Kings have put in place. 

To sum up my thoughts on the week I am fully supportive of the conclusion that Chris Skidmore drew in his speech: ‘By 2030 … And I sincerely hope, that when it comes to creating the higher education sector of tomorrow, we will no longer be talking about parity of esteem but, instead, be driven in our mission by a unity of purpose.’ I hope that collectively we can work together to provide an inclusive education for all that can engage and have the potential to succeed.

Last week in an HEi-know news review blog Advance HE Chief Executive Alison Johns threw down the gauntlet asking ‘what should we read our articles by’. I say Simon and Garfunkel. Last weekend I went to see the Simon and Garfunkel story at the Victoria Hall in Hanley. What a treat it was. Adam Dickinson and Kingsley Judd put on an amazing performance and I was bowled over by the quality of their voices. It is on tour nationally – if you are a fan I recommend it to you. I will be going again as it comes back to the region later this year. 

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