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New year presents HE sector with fresh challenges

Professor Malcolm Todd, Deputy Vice-Chancellor/Provost (academic and student experience) at the University of Derby, comments on what he sees as the most significant higher education news and opinions making headlines in the first week of 2020.

Universities UK International calls on employers to back study abroad campaign

Vivienne Stern, Director of Universities UK International, introduces the launch of Year Three of UUKi's Go International: Stand Out campaign, calling on employers to promote the value of international experience.

University leaders commit to pension talks as strikes begin

University leaders have written to the University and College Union to formally outline their commitment to continuing to work with UCU to deliver long-term reform of the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The move comes as UCU members at 60 universities begin strike action in disputes over both pensions and pay.

Gateway to university expertise now provides 'smart match' with business

A platform providing a single access point for businesses to university expertise and funding opportunities has been further developed by the National Centre for Universities and Business, Research England, and UK Research and Innovation, to help 'smart match' business and industry with higher education institutions, in a bid to boost R&D collaboration. Shivaun Meehan, Head of Communications at the NCUB, outlines the latest features of Konfer.

HEi-think: Social mobility, fairness and academic judgment: What are universities, being asked to do?

Following a call from Prime Minister David Cameron for Oxford and other elite universities to publish data on their intakes of Black and Minority Ethnic students as part of a nationwide anti-discrimination drive, University of Sheffield Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Keith Burnett examines the nature of the HE selection process and outlines what his own university is already doing to ensure it is fair.

 

This weekend we learned that the Prime-Minister will introduce a ‘duty of transparency’ in relation to university admissions and social mobility. He said he wanted to tear down the barriers in top universities, and others commented on the ‘shame’ of low participation from under-represented groups.

You would have to search hard in universities to find those who don’t want to remove barriers to talented students, whatever their background. But how do we do it? Is admonition enough – ‘Get on with it you uncaring bunch of ivory tower inhabitants!’

We do know there are some things we can’t do. We cannot use the method that has been used in the USA, for example. Any quota system is seen as social engineering, unfair and un-British. So what are we allowed to do? We are told that we simply have to abandon our awful prejudices against these groups, make more of an effort and they will flow. Really?

There are many who doubt whether or not a University is really for them. When I arrived in Jesus College, Oxford in the early 1970s as an undergraduate from a mining valley in South Wales, I was one of them. It wasn’t just my physical environment; it was the breathtaking confidence, both social and academic, of my independent school peers. I had to work hard to catch up with them and to realise that it really was the place for me.

But I had an advantage – excellent teaching at school by a man who had himself undertaken an MSc in Physics by research and who wrote Physics text books. I had a father who valued ideas and who encouraged me to achieve my potential. I had access to books via a public library.

These advantages are not there for everyone. In Sheffield, our University is deeply committed to widening participation and social mobility. Indeed, it was written into the founding manifesto of a university to be ‘for the child of the working man’, funded largely from public subscription by factory workers and industrialists across our steel city.

Today this determination to help others access shows itself in many forms. Our programme of access to medicine and dentistry begins work early with schools, supporting bright pupils who may never have considered university through summer schools and mentoring to consider medicine as an option, making subject choices along the way which make application possible. The fact that some early participants are now working as doctors is a huge source of pride, but it took monumental effort and significant resource.

Our work with other unrepresented groups is similarly challenging. Sheffield has led a programme of support for young people in local authority care, which extends well beyond admission into the kind of backup students with supportive families take for granted.

A former-student who came to the UK as a child as an asylum seeker from Somalia now works directly with homework clubs and the BME community, but tells me that his own challenges as a pupil were often very practical – a lack of a quiet space to study, a computer or a desk to write an essay. Mentoring made a difference, but he sees the need to offer new routes into university including apprenticeships with progression to degrees funded by employers. He is making links between local BME students and our programme of company-sponsored apprentices.

So back to the admission process.

We select students to University mostly on the basis of their A level examination results. This is not prejudice. We cannot allow any impression that admission is on any grounds other than merit. But don't we know that the performance in examinations can depend on social background and preparation by schools? Couldn't we just correct the A-level scores by looking at what some who talk about social mobility call ‘contextual data’?

We righty exercise judgement with extreme caution. We do not want to go outside the bounds of properly based academic judgment of a student's potential.

This is fair to all. You have to be able to look into the face of the parent of a dear child that didn't get in. You would not want us to use some crude correction, which would destroy our reputation for fairness. Those who work tirelessly in state schools or whose families pay, often with hardship, for private education, would be right to chastise us for any lack of fairness.

So don’t interpret lack of progress in social mobility within universities as lack of awareness of a deep problem in society that we accept our role to solve. Universities are working hard to open themselves to talent, and we want to do more. But we are part of a wider society which has far more to do if we are to succeed.

olivier26 / 123RF
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