On Wednesday 1st July, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan made a speech at the NEON summit for higher education outreach practitioners.
Due to the ongoing impact of Covid-19, many “attending” had been working flat out over the last few months, working to reach young people from underrepresented groups who had suddenly been told their school was closed.
Participants had been finding ways to deliver basic educational equipment so those students were able to study at home. Others had been working to find ways to ensure that online educational resources were not cut off to those students who, prior to lockdown, had no access to the internet outside of school or college.
Very little of this appeared to have been communicated to the minister.
Her words – which did little to acknowledge the current climate in which widening participation initiatives were being delivered – sparked a response of confusion and frustration amongst attendees. Surely at a conference of widening participation practitioners our efforts at least deserved acknowledgement by the government?
Instead what we got was a verbal assault on the attempts of dedicated professionals to widen university access, which understandably led to confusion and disappointment amongst those in attendance.
All about the context
In her speech, the minister repeatedly made the point that from the government’s perspective, too many young people were going to university. She highlighted an ambition for a move toward a more diverse higher education landscape, one in which vocational routes into education and work were more clearly defined and held a greater parity of esteem.
Too many universities have felt pressured to dumb down – either when admitting students, or in the standards of their courses
On the surface this may seem like an admirable objective – there’s no doubt that provision is narrowed toward young full-time undergraduates, and policy conversations geared toward providing more mechanisms of engagement with degree level education through part time study, HE in FE and higher and degree apprenticeships are sorely needed.
Buty these items were not addressed. In almost the same breath the minister made assertions that, because of an agenda of widening access to university, higher rates of higher education participation over the last 15 years had “dumbed down” standards.
Perhaps inadvertently, the rhetorical crosshairs of Donelan’s remarks appeared to be focused on professionals, myself included, who have been working tirelessly to support some of the nation’s most vulnerable young people.
I’m sad to say it didn’t stop there. Also encapsulated within the narrative of “dumbing down” were contextual approaches to university admissions at higher tariff universities.
It is a shame that the foundation of research and evidence to support the use of contextual admissions in addressing inequality of educational opportunity had not made its way to the ministers desk prior to the speech. Especially since the Office for Students has pages on its website advocating the practice stating that:
The debate is now about how contextual admissions can be developed to make more radical progress towards narrowing the gaps between the most and least represented groups in higher education.
Dumbed down product
Reflecting on my own experiences, I am the product of an educational trajectory which forms the epitome of everything that the minister stated as being wrong with the higher education sector. After a significantly disrupted experience in primary and secondary school, I made my way to a local Post-92 university to study Drama. The entry requirements for my course were comparatively low, and a future career as a famous actor was always an unlikely route into graduate employment.
But for me university was a catalyst – which broadened my understanding of the world around me, developed my confidence, and provided me with space and time to reflect on the contribution which I could make to the world around me. It provided me with a platform on which to find my passion, focusing my future professional and academic endeavours toward supporting students who may have had experiences similar to my own.
Given those experiences, the idea that the version of higher education I engaged with was “dumbed down” is rather insulting – especially given that I have just completed my doctorate in research relating to education and inequality.
If the government truly wish to promote social mobility as tool to “level up” society, perhaps speeches such as this shouldn’t be so quick to point the finger of blame at a group of professionals working their hardest to fill gaps that should never exist, and supply vulnerable students with the most basic of educational supplies during Covid-19.
Instead perhaps their focus may be better spent on addressing the underlying inequalities which have created a need for the existence of jobs like ours in the first place.