Fellow warriors on very different battlefields 2

November 19, 2004

'How do we decide who is talented?'

It turns out to be an enlightening experience when widening participation officers Patrick Johnson and Joe Baden swap jobs in the first of a new series.

Once, this would have been travelling into enemy territory. A one-time, shall we say, overenthusiastic Millwall supporter on a train to Piccadilly Station just days before my team was to meet Manchester United in the FA Cup Final. Though my love for Millwall has never abated, the belligerent attitude and all-embracing anger that once seemed essential to my very survival, both emotional and physical, is now channelled towards a more constructive passion. At times it is necessary to remind myself that the person on his way to meet with a fellow university worker and the pathetic, confused, unfulfilled and ultimately destructive man in denial about his addiction problems are one and the same.

The irony is clear: the last time I came to Manchester it was with the intention of causing chaos. Now, one of the things I am coming to discuss is my conviction that the best way to banish a multifaceted chaos from the existence of the kind of person that I was is to reach out to those who never considered universities as being relevant to their worlds.

It may sound egotistical, but I believe that I and a growing number of my contemporaries are the embodiment of what can be achieved if widening participation is managed properly. At Goldsmiths College's Open Book programme, widening participation is about more than getting bums on seats; it's about people's lives. I have already spent a day with Patrick Johnson and am in no doubt that he is of the same mind. One of my missions during this exchange is to discover to what extent Manchester University, as an institution, shares this view, and if so, what it is doing about it.

Perhaps I am being unfair in this mission: widening participation is not an immutable concept. This is where much of the problem lies when contrasting the work of two organisations working under the umbrella of such an ill-defined label.

What is a "non-traditional" student? Does widening participation just mean a more concerted effort on the part of colleges to recruit young people from backgrounds without a tradition of entry into higher education? In practice, is widening participation strategy based on a genuine ethos or simply a way to tap into a bit more money? Even the funding of such programmes blurs what is an already cloudy picture. Widening participation can mean whatever an institution finds it convenient to mean. A large percentage of the monies earmarked for this purpose has been redirected from core funding. Consequently, many institutions have had to concoct elaborate methods of using widening participation resources to maintain existing provision.

Open Book is at the extreme end of this scale. The disadvantage is that it is difficult to tap into existing funding streams. But the advantage we have over more traditional widening participation programmes taking place at institutions such as Manchester is that the more dramatic nature of our work inevitably attracts greater attention. Our results are more immediate and our successes more apparent. In theory (I live in hope), this attention means that we have more room for growth.

It seems that I have spent most of what I see as my real life at Goldsmiths, both as a mature student and as a worker. Goldsmiths is a relatively small college embedded within a working-class inner-city community. The first thing that strikes me when entering the Manchester site is scale. The area is a "unitropolis". The surrounding streets and businesses are dominated by student life and have the feel of Oxford or Cambridge without the stuffy tradition and with more in the way of pop culture. I immediately see that this has pros and cons. I recognise the feeling of personal security engendered. As the parent of a young woman who will hopefully be looking for somewhere to continue her studies, such security is attractive; from a widening participation perspective, I'm not so sure.

It is fair to say that all universities are, to varying degrees, insular, having little contact with or educational relevance to local communities.

This is particularly true for institutions in working-class environments.

Students and workers can often be fooled into believing that the only world that exists is that within our academies. Our view is often coloured more by theory than reality. Patrick is refreshingly grounded in his awareness of the "outside world". Nonetheless, I know how difficult it can be just to get people to cross the threshold at Goldsmiths. For anyone working at Manchester, this task must be amplified 100 times over.

Because Goldsmiths is smaller, we have also been able to establish good working relationships and friendships with those in higher positions within the college. Our outcomes are apparent and often dramatic. There is also, perhaps, the scope to develop a more intimate knowledge of and sense of confidence with the "powers that be". As a result, we have a level of autonomy in developing our methodology and less problematic opportunities for initiating and continuing internal partnerships with, for example, the student union (one of the most proactive in the country) and individual academic departments; this must be more difficult to achieve at a larger institution. At Manchester, to create a culture where widening participation is seen as a necessary and intrinsic part of such a large university's psyche is beyond being merely daunting. Despite this, Patrick and his colleagues seem to be winning that battle.

At first glance, it would appear that the groups of students to whom Patrick and I are reaching out are poles apart. Many of the young people Patrick's project is attracting may well have made the first tentative steps towards deciding on some form of academic progression. However, turning such a decision into reality is not easy if your social circumstances are not conducive to that progression. Intervention is not just desirable but essential. If left alone, these young people could become future Open Book students.

Manchester's policy statement notes that "there is a correlation between social deprivation and low levels of attainment but that this does not necessarily reflect a lack of potential". While some might argue that this is, excuse the vernacular, stating the bleedin' obvious and I cringe at being described as having been socially deprived, this is one of the premises on which Goldsmiths' Open Book is built. We too are "working to raise the aspirations... and the awareness of higher education among people from underrepresented groups". The statement continues: "The university aims to encourage applications from the most gifted and talented individuals from these groups... who otherwise may not have considered higher education."

This is perhaps where we differ: in relation to potential, how do we decide which individuals are the most "gifted"? As a member of "one of these groups", who was never considered to be either gifted or talented, but who was eventually convinced that an education was what he wanted and what he then worked hard to get, I feel that Manchester, along with other institutions is missing an opportunity. At Goldsmiths' Open Book, we argue that most people from "these groups" and, even from among the middle classes, have the potential to succeed in higher education. Therefore, we identify people, quite often with little formal education, and work with them for as long as it takes for them legitimately to apply to university.

Those students go on to enrich the culture, not only at Goldsmiths but wherever they decide to study.

There are many similarities between the work of Manchester's careers department and Goldsmiths' widening participation department. Manchester has University Options; Goldsmiths is active in the local Aim Higher initiative along with London South Bank and Greenwich universities and King's College London, which has programmes that closely resemble Manchester's. All of them are facilitating work that is as important as Open Book. Few colleges, however, are specifically targeting the same group of people as Open Book. This makes Goldsmiths different not only from Manchester but from most institutions.

One thing that unifies us all is that we are working towards a similar end.

Most of the people I met in Manchester would love to extend the boundaries of their provision: there is an unspoken frustration about the limitations created by government policy and the way it constrains funding options.

Whatever the case, in Patrick Johnson I've found a fellow warrior, albeit in a much more genteel guise; I also hope I've found a new friend.

Joe Baden is project manager, Agency for Non-traditional Students, Goldsmiths College, London.

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