Widening Access - Help all to enter 'hallowed ground'

28th February 2014 at 00:00
More must be done to defeat fear of university, says academic

University education is still "beyond the aspirations" of many communities, a leading figure in further and higher education has told TESS.

Alice Brown, who left school at 15 before eventually pursuing a career in academia, said there was "a lot more still to do" to engage those who felt excluded.

The emeritus professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh and new chair of the Scottish Funding Council had developed an understanding of the problem from her own working-class upbringing, she believed.

Professor Brown said she had grown up feeling that higher education was not for her. "I was brought up on the other side of the Meadows (a park in Edinburgh close to the university) and my peers and I thought the university was hallowed ground. If you wanted to go down town, you couldn't cross campus."

Things had changed since then but there was "a lot more still to do", she said. "I think for a lot of communities, university will still be seen as something beyond their aspirations, and that poverty of aspiration is something that is not just about money, but also about realising there are opportunities out there."

But universities could not be "solely responsible for changing an imbalance in what is quite an unequal society", Professor Brown said. "I came from a background where both parents were very hard-working and bright but uneducated in a formal sense. So they had no real knowledge of the education system and I didn't know anyone who had done Highers or gone to university."

However, having left school with only her O grades, Professor Brown returned to education in her thirties, studying for her Highers in evening classes at Edinburgh's Stevenson College while juggling work and family life.

It was her husband who inspired her to go on to university, she said. "I used to type his essays and think that was very interesting. Suddenly to be on the campus and meet these people was really interesting."

Professor Brown graduated from Edinburgh with a double first in economics and politics at the age of 37 and went on to complete a PhD. She began lecturing at the university, quickly moving up through the ranks to become first a head of department and then vice-principal. She was later appointed the first Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

Despite the budget cuts and changes in priority, Professor Brown believes it is crucial that colleges continue to provide the opportunities for mature learners that helped her.

"I totally understand the government's concern with youth unemployment and their investment in 16-plus. If they don't get the chance at that age, there is the risk of them being lost to the system for ever," she said. "But we shouldn't see it as an either-or (situation). We absolutely want to ensure that the opportunities for anyone who can benefit are there."

The dramatic changes in the sector had brought with them challenges but also opportunities, she told TESS, referring to the introduction of larger, regional colleges.

"It is an exciting time for the college sector and I see us very much in a supportive role. We are building new relationships with these new regional colleges through the outcome agreements, and I want to be working with the sector, listening to them, and helping them to realise their aspirations," she said.

Professor Brown believes that the large scale of regional colleges gives them "more clout". "The FE sector has often been seen as the Cinderella and that shouldn't be the case. What is their role in research? Or in the international environment?"

But it would not be plain sailing, she stressed. "I have been through merger processes, so I know that with change there are always big industrial relations issues, people are anxious and worried about their futures. But it is about key leadership skills to take people through that and to inspire (them)."

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