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WONKFEST18 and looking at the Brightside with Stand Alone.

Three events took place this week that exemplified the fundamental differences between the ‘debaters’ of government policies and the ‘doers’. The Annual WONKHE Conference produced some surprises and aired more concerns about the Higher Education sector than was comfortable for most of those present. There was inevitably much debate, but ideas about how to solve serious fundamental problems were thin on the ground. Many of the attendees work hard in their own institutions to make things better but they seem to be swimming against the tide of government confusion and a lack of resources to help students in need. This event was followed by others from the more direct ‘doer’ community. The Stand Alone annual conference celebrated its success in offering practical help for students estranged from their families. Unlike the WONKHE conference, this was accompanied by the refreshing help of students on hand to demonstrate their more down to earth needs. The mentoring charity Brightside took a similar approach in celebrating fifteen years and over 100,000 students have been helped through its ground breaking e-mentoring scheme.

WONKHEFEST 18 : An alien place for a scientist.

This meeting took place over two days in the somewhat eccentric surroundings of Ravensborne University that is in the shadow of the O2 arena and surrounding buildings. The building has an open-plan layout with ‘flexible’ use of space over several floors overlooking the main concourse. Indeed, it is so flexible that lunch can be prepared whilst someone is lecturing across the same room. Sounds from the floor above mingle with the offering. The flexibility that allows the sound system from one presentation to mingle with loud conversations outside, accompanied by coffee grinding and smoothie whirring, added
to the overall surreal atmosphere. Not since 1982, when at a scientific talk in Boston that was interrupted several times by the ‘Boston Pops Orchestra’ practising ‘America’ from West Side Story (I like to be in America, Okay by me in America, Everything free in America) in the hall next door, have I felt so assaulted by competing sounds. As a scientist used to scientific meetings, I found this meeting very uncomfortable.

Regulator and Government in harmony?

The most polished presentation was from the chair of the OfS, Michael Barber. He stressed the obvious point that the OfS is not a funding body and thus could not bail out a failing university regardless of the outcome. This does not mean that a bail out would be precluded – just that OfS would not do it. His observation and advice that ‘providers’ (boy I am getting to get annoyed by the use of that fatuous term) should seek advice early on and there “might be other options” seemed too cryptic for serious consideration.

The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Giymah was brave enough to turn up and field an alarming barrage of questions from Mark Leach, the WONKHE founder. He was genuinely rattled several times yet soldiered on. Unlike many ministers, he stayed on with his staff for some time afterwards and spoke with several delegates. He has a difficult task and his willingness to engage does him considerable credit.

A dark shadow.

The whole conference was overshadowed by two things. The impending Augar review and the leaks about ‘differential fees’ was more upfront. However, the ONS ruling on how student loans are to be recorded in future seemed to cast a more ominous shadow. Andrew McGettigan provided an illuminating view of what options the ONS might consider. Whilst treating the loans as if they were the so called ‘graduate tax’ as an option might be less likely, it seems to me that it would be the most honest of the approaches mentioned. That the government is making Augar wait for this is also very troubling. The ONS ruling will be made public on December 17th. As Andrew McGettigan put it “that’s my Christmas sorted”.

Shedding some light on Augar.

Mark Leach shed some light on the recent media coverage at the final session. The leaks that revealed that the Augar review was considering the idea of differential fees have been reported as taking the form of lowering fees to a maximum of £6,500 pa for many degrees. However, it would be offset by fees as high as £13,500 pa for ‘expensive’ degrees such as science and medicine. Leach explained that Augar had met with a number of VCs and briefed them on a detailed proposal regarding the review that included fee restructuring. It seems that Augar had been either naïve or ‘clever’ in assuming his proposals would not leak out. Staff working with Sam Gyimah confirmed that they had no idea what Augar was proposing other than “what was in the press”. Testing the water in such a crude manner, alongside the clear lack of honour prevalent amongst some VCs, is perhaps more at home in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’.

A Freudian slip of epic proportions.

The Freudian slip of the WONKHE conference must go to former Melbourne University VC, Glyn Davis, who outlined the role, or otherwise, of VCs. The position as a figurehead for an organisation included various traditional ceremonial duties such as officiating at the “Guarantee cerem…. Sorry Graduation ceremonies”. From now in my mind will not be able to release itself from the idea of a ‘Guarantee ceremony’ at the end of a degree. It conjures up the idea that acquiring a degree is akin to buying a product such as washing machine. Then being presented with a 'guarantee' at a solemn ceremony. Maybe the guarantee should be time limited or graduates might be offered dodgy insurance to cover any unexpected faults arising?

The conference quote that will also stay in the mind.

The quote of the conference must go to Terry Manyeh. He took the stage with other ‘experts’ to debate the question ‘Where are the win-wins in the social mobility debate?’ He was joined in this quest for an answer by the redoubtable and very experienced Anna Vignoles of Cambridge University, Jenny Baskerville of KPMG and Helen Thorne of UCAS. Terry’s credentials were twofold. Firstly, he is a researcher with the RECLAIM project in Manchester (that aims to provide a voice for working class young people) and secondly, more crucially, he comes from a low income background himself. His approach was to speak after the others and make the announcement that “We don’t live in a meritocracy. Social Mobility does not exist”. This made the others on the stage very uncomfortable along with what seemed to be the vast majority of the room. In terms of effect it must get the quote of the conference accolade. From his perspective, this is a reasonable statement and he tried to back it up with from his perspective and experience. It was telling and a shame that very few seemed to get it from their very different perspectives. This could lie at the root of why social mobility is so elusive in the UK.

Stand Alone and estrangement.

This organisation is on a very determined mission to alleviate the desperate situations in which many people with no family support find themselves. This can often start for young people who are most vulnerable when starting to embark on their life journeys.

The annual meeting of Stand Alone at Kings College could not have been more different to that of the WONKFESTHE18 proceedings. This was a place where a teacher and scientist could feel more at home. It was also a celebration of what can be achieved with few resources; something many scientists achieve. Ably led by Rebecca Bland since its founding, the charity has transformed attitudes to young people who need to see at least some rays of hope and support. The important role of supporting students whilst embarking upon a degree course is led by Susan Mueller who is very optimistic. One workshop session considered how the culture might be changed at universities. But this revealed that there is still a long way to go in recognising academics that support students and more training and reward for such efforts was called for. A very important study by Jacqueline Stevenson of Sheffield Hallam University ‘Family Matters’ was launched and demonstrated beyond any doubt how family plays a pivotal role in success for most students. This emphasises more than ever why those without family support need help when they lack any 'safety net'. Encouragingly, this was also emphasised by Chris Millward, the Director for Fair Access and Participation at the OfS. He produced data to show the improvement since 2006 by using participation from the POLAR areas. However, he did have the grace to admit that the methodology might not be perfect. Certainly it does tend to cover up the cracks in the participation view.

Looking on the Brightside.

Similarly, the ‘doing’ Brightside charity celebrated 15 years of mentoring students into higher education. That over 100,000 students have been helped into a career and university access through mentoring via its e-platform, is testament to a brilliant idea that offers more than just platitudes. Chris Millward of the OfS surfaced again and it was clear that he admires the work of Brightside in opening up chances for those less likely to be able to seek this for themselves. Chairman and Founder John Berry describe the very small beginnings and inspired everyone that anything is possible. The professionalism exuding from Anand Shukla, the Chief Executive and his staff was clearly evident. Testimony from students and mentors showed that practical help and guidance on a one-to-one basis is still the best way to help young people. We were all challenged to think of a mentor who affected our career pathway and success. I could only think of one. I never knew his name (he did not tell me) but the Director of Careers Advice at Coventry City Council once gave an hour of his time to me alone when he did not have to. One regret is that  I never got the chance to thank him later.

What can be concluded?

The sense of foreboding that came with the deliberations at the WONKHE conference was difficult to cast off. The realisation that a government minister has to read about recommendations from the Auger review in the newspapers leaves a sense that perhaps nobody is leading anything. We learned from Mark Leach of WONKHE that Augar had briefed the VCs of several universities in detail about plans to recommend differential fees. The source of the leak should think very carefully about the damage this is causing to public confidence. The likelihood is that the process of the review itself has now been irreversibly ‘corrupted. Indeed this may be to the extent that the government may simply ignore it.

Yet it is heartening that the ‘doers’ are carrying on with important work despite government dithering and inaction. Their example may be leading the way and having a greater influencing effect than they imagine.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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