Back to the Curriculum

Opening Address, Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE) Conference, July 2 2014, Salford, Manchester

How do we defend access and continuing education in the emerging, “post-crash” settlement?  Before things went wrong in 2008, Higher Education in Britain was awash with cash, steering towards an overall participation target of 50%.  Five years later, as the economic recovery gains momentum,  there is little talk of going back to these objectives.  Instead, there is inexorable motion towards a new binary divide, whether from the left or the right of the political centre.  And binary divides tend to squeeze access to appropriate opportunity, whether to correct economic inequality or to enable continuing education.

Manchester – Salford – has the history and consequences of binary squeezes written across the cityscape.  This was the heart of Britain’s industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, creating immense economic value.  It’s also the city where Friedrich Engels described the conditions of the working class – basements recently excavated by our Centre for Applied Archaeology.  Salford Quays, connected to the Atlantic trade by the Manchester Ship Canal, was one of Britain’s busiest ports a century ago.  By the 1990s it was a wasteland, a graveyard for employment.  Today, there’s  a billion pounds of investment in one of the largest digital media centres in the world.  This is also a city formed and defined by immigration, from Ireland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and from everywhere else.  Today, more than two hundred languages are spoken across Manchester and it’s a fair guess that everywhere in the world is represented.  Manchester’s universities have the largest number of international students in Britain; at our university, we have students from well over one hundred countries.

Today – 2014  – feels like 2009.  Then, we knew that cuts were coming, but the general election had to come first.  The Coalition was elected in May 2010 and there were massive protests against the new fee regime in December.  Now, we know that this fee regime is unsustainable, and far more expensive than the system it replaced.  We are waiting for the general election of mid-2015 to find out what the next policy will be.

One extreme, that Labour is working through as the party shapes its manifesto, is the reduction of the fee cap from £9000 to £6000.  The other extreme, which could follow logically from current Coalition policy and the Browne Review, would be the removal of the fee cap, further encouragement of private for-profit providers and the break up and sale of the student loan book to banks.  Whatever the eventual mix, the outcome is likely to be binary.  On the one side will be a small number of elite universities, either charging high fees or else reducing their undergraduate numbers to offset cross-subsidization.  On the other side will be large, low-cost universities, competing on price to offset fixed costs against scale, either because fees are capped or in competition with for-profits that offer the transactional, minimal requirements to achieve a qualification.

One set of responses to this developing scenario will be – and already is – anger.  But anger has not had a great success rate in recent years.  The student protests of December 2010 were the biggest in years, but the fees went up and the NUS conceded defeat.  The Council for the Defence of British Universities was formed as a broad coalition to defend the idea of the university, but is off the radar (I think I may be the only serving Vice-Chancellor who is a member).  Universities in general get a critical perspective from all sides: for failing to adapt quickly enough to disruptive digital technologies; for not developing employer-required skills; for graduate under- and unemployment; for offering funny courses.  As a consequence, anger does not stand up well in comparison to other demands on public spending, such as local government services, public transport and, particularly, the NHS.

More specifically, with regard to access and continuing education, we still find it difficult to show how we use resources – funding – to bring about a demonstrable effect.  Contrary to expectations, while anticipation of the new £9000 fee level led to a surge in applications and admissions in September 2011 and a matching and sharp dip for September 2012 when the new regime was first applied, applications have recovered and are stronger than ever for September 2014.  And, if anything, the proportion of new admissions from low-income households has increased.  In contrast to secondary education, we do not use measures of added value, which would compare statistically predicted graduate outcomes with actual results and would allow a comparison of benefits against socio-economic circumstances.  There do not seem to be evident, compelling, arguments against funding changes, such as the recent removal of support for students with disabilities, or the continuing threat to HEFCE’s student opportunity funding.  This fuzziness does not make for good public policy arguments.

An alternative to anger is to get better at demonstrating success and, through this, to become more successful in enabling access.  One approach here is to return to the curriculum, in its broadest sense.

By curriculum – as I don’t have to tell a group such as FACE – I don’t mean what’s in the prospectus or the rules and regulations that the QAA looks to for assurance.  I rather mean the whole structure of the student experience, ranging from technical mastery of new knowledge through to the excitement of discovery, the empowerment in learning and the contexts in which new understanding is applied.  And I want to emphasise two generic aspects of curriculum that, I believe, can contribute to improving access:  recognition, and extended progression.

Recognition.  One of the tacit assumptions behind a cluster of policies that, together, shape the dominant view of access is that of correcting deficit.  Whether talking about widening participation in terms of low income households or socioeconomic category, advancing equality, or embracing diversity, there is often an implication that “marginalized groups” need assistance to “catch up”.  Rarely, though, is the objective specified or how attainment is to be measured; catch up with whom, and against what criterion for success? And we know we must be in trouble when everyone from UKIP to Labour is committed to “social mobility”.  In essence, overuse has made these concepts empty ciphers, of little practical help in shaping either policy or practice.

An alternative way of looking at this, and the focus of a thoughtful and productive line of research and writing over recent years, is rather to think and act in terms of “recognition”.  I tend to think of this in terms of the continuing value in the concept of experiential learning, the insight that stepwise changes in our acquisition and use of knowledge come from moving through cycles of immersion in experience – whether in the workplace, the laboratory or the richness of sources – and reflection, when we step aside and apart, usually with others, to generalize, share, reflect and theorize.  When we do this, we find that diversity becomes a significant asset, bringing experiences and perspectives into unexpected and productive juxtaposition.  Rather than seeing some members of a class as marginalized or lacking, this gives status and dignity to their knowledge through recognizing the value that they bring into the university. Anyone who has been thoughtful about their experience of teaching at a university will have also experienced this.

Recognition, though, also has a deeper and more profound value.  To recognize the legitimacy of the experiences, perceptions and perspectives that a far wider range of people bring into the university is to broaden the epistemic framework of knowledge itself.  We are quite good at recognizing this retrospectively.  For example, in the nineteenth century novels were seen as too trivial to warrant any place in the curriculum and were widely associated with the frivolity of women.  Today, this literature is the canon, staunchly defended as a bulwark of standards of learning and scholarship.  It’s a fair bet that, in fifty years time, new ways of knowing that are considered marginal today will be similarly defended as mainstream, and that our successors will look back at us with the same mild and condescending derision that we apply to aspects of the Victorian curriculum.  To recognize the value in the new and the marginal is to get a glimpse of the future, and to benefit from this.

Extended progression. Here, I mean a priority on improving the articulation between all aspects of post-compulsory education, whether this is Further Education, Higher Education, apprenticeships, or work-based learning programmes such as Employer Owned Skills.

It is surprising how many people believe that that there is simple relationship between A-levels and university study; in fact only about half of all British university students have A-levels and, in many universities, students with A-levels are in the minority.  As far as access is concerned, the A-level route is comparatively uncomplicated with a single major point of contention; whether or not “top” universities should allow “contextual admissions”.  In other words, should the undeniable relationship between socioeconomic circumstances and attainment levels at A-level be taken into account by those universities with the most competition for places.  While this is certainly important, it is conceptually simple.

Improving the articulation between vocational courses and the university curriculum is more complex and, I would suggest, far more significant in potential for improving both access and continuing education. There is a clearly a need for far more coherent pathways through the plethora of post-compulsory qualifications other than A-levels and their assessment systems.  While A-levels are widely understood, and their standards a matter of recurring national angst, there is almost no public debate about BTECs, about how they are moderated or that they are offered by a for-profit company.  Most people who teach in universities, or their children, are unlikely to have studied for them and, I suspect, comparatively few people know what the qualification’s acronym stands for.

Work across the divide between BTECs offered at Level 3 in Further Education and the first year of undergraduate study at university yields rich rewards in access and progression.  Extending this further, by designing curricula in which learners can continue from a BTEC and into a Higher Education diploma at Level 4 in their college before having the opportunity to enter university at Level 5 will widen access, with subsequent retention, further.  We are one of a number of universities currently working with partner colleges to explore the opportunities in new pathways such as these.

Getting back to the curriculum by engaging with issues such as these will, I believe, demonstrate more convincingly how important access and continuing education continue to be, both in terms of public goods and in personal benefits.  For public good, we surely need clear and diverse pathways that equip more people for the continually emerging needs of the economy.  To recognize ever-new ways of looking at the world is to anticipate emerging, new knowledge.  For personal benefits, we need to provide prospective and present students with clear ways of imagining their future selves, so that they can make the most appropriate choices to realize their capabilities.

Thank you for joining us here, in Salford, and for the richness of discussion and inspiration that always distinguishes FACE’s annual conferences.


Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE) Conference, University of Salford, 2-4 July 2014.  “FACE as an organisation facilitates the exchange and dissemination of information and practices in lifelong learning and continuing education. By promoting collaboration and innovation between providers and practitioners FACE aims to support and encourage a socially inclusive framework for lifelong learning, challenging exclusion and fostering full participation”.

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