A strange speech to widening participation practitioners

Alex Blower reflects on a speech on social mobility and concludes that the minister failed to read the room.

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.

12 responses to “A strange speech to widening participation practitioners

  1. Excellent refractions! I too achieved poorly in my A levels, went on to study drama at a Post 92, gained a first, studying for my MBA and working full time now in a job I love and it pays me well. I don’t and didn’t aspire to be a top class well paid lawyer or banker. What I went with was a painfully shy and lacking in confidence, and 100% through my university life, I blossomed and now love delivering training sessions and presentations to hundreds.
    I was in this conference too and it was a huge insult to those of us working hard.

  2. Well said Alex, you’ve articulated it perfectly.
    I still can’t not understand the intention behind the speech and if she knew who she was speaking too. Both of these things worry me

  3. This is a brilliant article and a brilliant response to a truly baffling speech! I am another Drama graduate who wouldn’t have my job had I not got a degree. I don’t earn a huge amount of money but work has never been about that for me, I am more concerned about doing something I am passionate about that makes a difference to people’s lives!

  4. Brilliant article Alex – agree with everything you have said and particularly that university is a catalyst for finding yourself and your passions. You did Drama as did my eldest daughter (MA 4 years in Drama and Theatre at Kent University) which was without doubt the best 4 years of her life. No, she is not working in a theatre but the skills, experience, and knowledge she gained mean she is now doing a job she loves and actually she could actually put her hand to anything! Like others who have commented here, her motivation is not money but making a difference to the lives of others and you can’t actually put a price on that.

  5. Perhaps the Minister did not “ misread the room”( an arrogant assumption that “the room” should determine the contents of a Minister’s speech). Perhaps “ the room” needs to get out of its bubble and pay attention.

  6. I’ve always thought that when you’re invited to an event you should show some modicum of courtesy to your hosts, by understanding what they’re about and not being rude or dismissive to or about them and what they’re trying to do.. And – as a politician – you should *always* read the room, or you’re not a very good politician.

  7. Well written, Alex. You have done such fantastic work with young people and it’s so important that WP work continues.

  8. Excellent article and really captures how frustrated we were by the accusations and criticisms levelled at us. There is always more that universities can do to widen access (not just to university, many of us regularly speak about other routes such as apprenticeships and college), but expecting us to pick up the government’s slack in schools, colleges and wider society? That’s far more than outreach programmes alone can solve.

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