City Magazine 2014
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  1. Opening doors to higher education
City Magazine 2014

Opening doors to higher education

Fifty years ago, the Robbins Report asserted that university degrees ‘should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so’. The Report’s recommendations heralded an era of expansion of higher education, but today, concerns remain that a student’s background can still affect his or her decision to attend university. Joanna McGarry asks what it means to widen participation in 2014.

A student journey

College Building illustrationIn a darkened seminar room in the College Building, 15 captivated faces are glued to the projector screen as a thrilling car chase plays on screen and Metallica booms across the audio system. When the clip comes to an end, Dr Diana Salazar, Lecturer in Music at City, composer and sound artist, restarts it, but the music has now changed to a jaunty polka, giving the car chase an almost comical feel. Some of the students giggle, but the example has perfectly demonstrated the importance of synergy between music and visuals. The clips provoke an animated discussion of film composition and the way that music can contribute to the emotion and direction of cinematography.

The film composition workshop is one of a series of events organised as part of a Music Taster Week at City for 14 and 15 year olds and it offers just a snapshot of five days in the life of one of the hardest working teams at City. Danielle Russo, Head of Widening Participation, explains more: "We run events for students at primary and secondary schools in London. One day, we might have a group of Year six students (ages 10 to 11) visiting the University and the next might involve a Law Masterclass for Year 12 students (ages 16 to 17), led by City academics and students." The ultimate goal of the Widening Participation team is to ensure that bright and capable students who face barriers to higher education have the resources and support they need to make an informed decisions about their future.

Overcoming barriers

The students that Danielle and her team meet confront a variety of challenges. Typically, their parents or siblings might not have attended university and they will study at a school where few students progress to higher education. These issues might be compounded by economic factors: students may come from neighbourhoods with low average incomes and they may be entitled to free school meals. 'Lookedafter' students - those leaving the care of local authorities at the age of 18 - also benefit from Widening Participation support, as do students with disabilities.

In equipping these students with information about higher education, Danielle emphasises the importance of a joined-up approach. "Tutoring is a big part of what we do. City student ambassadors visit schools each week to support individuals or small groups of students in their learning." The success of the tutoring scheme in raising academic standards is manifest: at City of London Academy Islington, 30 City mathematics tutors contributed to record success rates in 2013 GCSE results. For students, contact with a City tutor can be the first step towards greater engagement with the University's other outreach activities. It can also offer something less tangible: the chance to simply talk about what university is like and answer questions that will be familiar to anyone who recalls their teenage years: will I fit in? Are there other people like me? Am I clever enough?

Financial Fears

Since 2012, another question has been added to this list: can I afford to go? The introduction of tuition fees of up to £9,000 for undergraduate study in England is a concern for many of the students who participate in Widening Participation initiatives. For SEO
London, an organisation that works to support young people from underrepresented backgrounds as they move into higher education, the key is to provide information and break down misconceptions.

"In everything we do, we emphasise that barriers can be overcome," says Nishma Chauhan, SEO Scholars Programme Manager. "So in the case of tuition fees, we share details on scholarships and bursaries and we also ensure that our Scholars understand that fees are paid back over a long period of time, once they have begun their careers." Danielle agrees: "We emphasise that tuition fees should be one of several factors to consider when deciding whether to apply to university, but they should not be the deciding factor." For students from low income backgrounds, organisations like SEO London and university-based teams like Danielle's play a critical role in helping students balance their financial concerns with an awareness of the benefits of higher education and recognition of their own capacity to succeed.

Supply and demand

Of course, Widening Participation initiatives can only be effective if places are available for all students who are capable of attending university and wish to do so. This issue was at the heart of Lord Robbins' landmark 'Higher Education Report' in 1963. When he began his research in 1961, just four per cent of school leavers entered university, despite the fact that increased secondary school provision in the post-war period meant that more students than ever before were "qualified by ability and attainment." The Report emphasised the impact of educational, familial and economic backgrounds in determining which students progressed to university, roundly rejecting the argument that it was possible to "ascertain an intelligence factor unaffected by education or background."

Robbins recommended that higher education should be dramatically expanded to redress the imbalance between demand and supply and to open doors to university for students regardless of background. More places were made available at established universities and Colleges of Advanced Technology and Education were granted the power to award degrees.

Though Robbins foresaw the increase in student numbers that this shift would cause, it is doubtful that even he could have envisioned the steady rise in student numbers that continues to this day. The commitment to access for all transcends political party lines: in 1999, Tony Blair committed his government to a target of 50 per cent of young adults in higher education and in 2015, the current government plans to lift all student number controls, leaving universities free for the first time to accept as many qualified students as they choose.

Robbins at City

One of the main recommendations of the Robbins Report was to remove the "artificial differences of status" between colleges, institutes and universities. Just three years after the Report's publication, this recommendation would have profound consequences for students and staff at the Northampton College of Advanced Technology, when a Royal Charter granted it university status and it became The City University (now City University London).

The future

The economic, social and political debates that have shaped access to higher education for the past fifty years are absent from the Music Taster Week, where, after a trip to City's Department of Music and lunch with student ambassadors, participants depart for a guided tour of the O2 arena in Greenwich. But Robbins would surely approve of the scene: bright, capable students learning, experimenting and testing the waters of higher education for the first time.