As the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) prepares for the fourth World Access to Higher Education Day – WAHED – on 17 November 2021, NIC MITCHELL looks back to the early days of championing widening participation

When I moved across from being an evening newspaper industrial reporter in north east England to take up a newly created post as public relations officer of a regional polytechnic, I quickly picked up the vibes of the class structure to English universities and that widening access was about the last thing on the minds of most higher education leaders.

It didn’t help when university rankings came along and those institutions scoring the top marks already enrolled the most privileged 18 and 19 year-olds with top A-level scores –  and then after three years awarded those very same young people with a First Class or 2.1 honours degree.

And when those graduates from the top-ranked universities landed highly-paid jobs in the City or well respected posts in medicine or law their old seats of learning were rewarded yet again by being able to claim outstanding employability records.

Swimming against the tide of elitism

Of course, there were other higher education institutions, which perhaps had to make a virtue out of a necessity and were devoted to widening participation.

They made their mark by swimming against the tide of elitism and set their stall out to educate those who had missed out on higher education the first time round by going straight to work after leaving school or opting for job-ready qualifications instead of a degree.

I took this route when I enrolled on a one-year pre-entry course validated by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) at Harlow College of Technology in Essex before being indentured to serve my three-year journalist apprenticeship at what was then North of England Newspapers based in Darlington, County Durham.

Back then in the 1970s and 80s, England and probably the world was more clearly divided between academic paths, normally at a university, and more vocational routes offered by polytechnics or colleges of further education which were usually seen as much less prestigious.

But even in classed-obsessed Great Britain in the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up, there were rumblings of revolution taking place in the higher education sector.

This first earthquake saw polytechnics ‘break-free’ from local authority control in 1989 and this was when I embarked on my career change to become a higher education communicator rather than a journalist.

It was also when, with the support of my new employers, Teesside Polytechnic, I enrolled as a part-time mature student on the first cohort of Stirling University’s MSc in Public Relations by Distance Learning – being accepted without having a first degree!

A couple of years later, Teesside Polytechnic was granted the right to change its name to a university.

The ‘Opportunity University’ brand

But despite ‘winning’ the university title, the new vice-chancellor and chairman of Governors decided to brand Teesside as the ‘Opportunity University’ and continued to promote the cause of widening access and participation as the former polytechnic had done since being established in 1930.

It was a bit controversial, I recall, but I loved the concept of taking the best from the polytechnic tradition and building a niche as a civic university serving the needs of what was then one of the biggest industrial heartlands of the UK – with steel, chemicals and engineering as the mainstays of the local economy.

Not everyone agreed and some thought we should try to be more elitist like the ‘proper universities of old’.

But as Teesside’s press liaison guy, I much preferred stories telling how redundant shipyard workers were graduating with degrees in public administration or how the new university had launched foundation degrees in leadership skills for those working at Tees Dock.

Much more interesting than writing about nice middle-class students who had gained a good degree to no one’s surprise!

Meteor pupils meet the Prime Minister

Probably the highlight of this golden age of going against the grain to widen opportunities came when we took a party group of ten and 11 year-old primary school children from Middlesbrough to Downing Street to meet then Prime Minister Tony Blair and show-off our Meteor scheme. Many had never left Teesside and certainly few had visited London.

Meteor was one of the first schemes to give less privileged youngsters a taste of university life before they entered secondary education with the purpose of widening their horizons to the possibility of going on to higher education themselves. That was the crowning glory of our ‘Opportunity University’ mission and I was over-the-moon when the associated PR campaign earned Teesside a gold badge from Heist in their education marketing awards.

Now after a lot of badgering by successive governments, universities around the world are taking up the cause of equitable access and working with less advantaged communities to raise the sights of young people who previously would never have thought of going to university.

And with a return to my journalistic roots as a regular writer for the likes of University World News, I think we should welcome the spotlight being turned on those striving so hard to widen access, and most importantly, successful participation in higher education.

Why World Access to HE Day is important

That’s why World Access to Higher Education Day (WAHED) is so important in addressing inequalities and tackling obstacles to widening participation, as Professor Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) in the UK and convenor of WAHED, told me for this blog.

WAHED organiser Professor Graeme Atherton

He said: “The day is an opportunity to focus the attention of the world’s universities onto something they are usually reluctant to talk about – why they are so unequal?

“To their credit, an increasing number are willing to confront this challenge now – but we need a global initiative that goes beyond one day to help them do this.”

More than just financial support needed

I attended the first the first World Access to Higher Education Day event organised by the NEON and hosted by Aston University in Birmingham in 2018.

There we heard university leaders and experts from around the world say that financial support and scholarship were not enough to overcome the challenges of equitable access and success for poorer and more marginalised students.

Psychological support was equally important for those who had never ventured far from their own communities and were suddenly thrust in a classroom with students who had never experienced hardship.

WAHED build-up

In the build-up to this year’s World Access to Higher Education Day, I reported on some great examples of what universities were doing in a story headlined ‘Has access to higher education been a victim of COVID-19?’ for University World News.

Among the case studies was how Universidade Estadual de Campinas in the State of San Paola had travelled the length of Brazil to make its student population more diverse and socially inclusive by recruiting students from the Amazon rain forest and offering psychological assistance and other support to help students to stay at the university during the pandemic and avoid high dropout rates.

We can expect many more inspiring stories at this year’s WAHED 2021 with 20 speakers from six continents taking part in a free online event which is being billed as the biggest annual global conference focusing solely on equitable access and success in higher education.

  • Main photograph from Perspective on the challenges to access and equity in Higher Education across the world in the context of COVID, edited by Professor Graeme Atherton, and published by the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON)

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