Access cash is best spent 'lower down the chain'

Schools have more participation impact, leader of the 'no-bullshit university' tells Melanie Newman

April 3, 2008

Gordon Marshall is, in his own words, a "classic widening participation success".

The council estate child of parents who left school at 14 is now the vice-chancellor of the University of Reading. He went to university, he said, because his family and teachers encouraged him to do so.

"The attitude was that people like me should be aspiring to get into a good university," said Professor Marshall, who holds an honours degree in sociology from the University of Stirling and a PhD from the University of Oxford.

Unlike many these days, he thinks it is pointless to attack higher education institutions for not doing more to widen access. Instead, he believes that money spent on universities' widening participation programmes would be better spent "lower down the chain".

"Widening participation money in universities is well spent on the whole," Professor Marshall said. "But if the same money were spent in schools, it would have a bigger effect." He wants to see more cash directed at young children and at encouraging pupils with working-class backgrounds to take A levels. "Then you could stop worrying about admissions policy," he said.

That the Government focuses its widening participation work on university entry is down to the four to five-year electoral cycle, he suggests. "Schemes that will take ten years to produce results are not appealing to politicians."

Professor Marshall, a former chief executive of the Economic and Social Research Council, is currently research-inactive - "brain-dead", as he describes himself.

His interests are in equal opportunities and distributive justice. The university's flat management structure and its culture of transparency - "we don't do hierarchy", he declared - might be seen as legacies of his concerns. This culture helped when it came to closing departments - and there have been a few closures in recent years: most controversially, physics in 2006. "Senate and council voted for the closure because there was nothing mysterious about the decision," he said.

No divestments are planned in 2008. "We are concentrating on areas in which we are excellent: meteorology, land management, English literature ... ".

Raising the institution's profile is also on the agenda. Noticing that the crime author P.D. James had bestowed University of Reading degrees on several of her protagonists, the university asked if she was an alumna. "She wasn't," Professor Marshall said. "But she said Reading was the sort of university you would want someone to go to." The endorsement cheers the vice-chancellor, but it does not go far enough. "I want people to stop seeing Reading as a safe place in Berkshire," he said.

He berates other institutions for their use of hyperbole: "Everyone is world class at everything. We'll be talking inter-planetary superiority next." He wants Reading to be known as the "no-bullshit university", and he is proud that its mission statement, strategy and targets all fit on one side of an A4 sheet of paper.

At the same time, the public's failure to recognise the university's excellence ("we have the best climate scientists in the world") is a source of frustration. "Historically, we've struggled against the universities of York and Bath," he admitted. "If you stop people in the street, they'll say that they know those are good. When you ask them if they've visited the universities, you find they haven't - they know nothing about them. They are associating the town and its nice buildings with the university."

The university website describes Reading town centre, with its "office-block skyline", as "less than lovely" and the campus buildings as "all managing to be ugly in their own way". New buildings for the business school and biomedical sciences may help improve the campus, and this month councillors approved plans for a new development around Reading Station, which will include six skyscrapers.

"Come back in five years. People will be talking about Reading," Professor Marshall said.


  • The University of Reading was established in 1926;
  • It is a member of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities;
  • One third of its 17,500 students are postgraduates;
  • About 10 per cent of its students are from outside the European Union, and its policy is to keep numbers of international students low;
  • It has an annual income of £175 million, one third of which comes from its government grant;
  • It has 20 research departments rated 5 or 5-star in the 2001 research assessment exercise.

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