Don’t ‘write people off’ by restricting access, urges UUK chief

Steve West draws on experience of his ‘very different’ educational path to warn against limiting university admissions

October 13, 2021
Don’t ‘write people off’, says UUK chief
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Restricting access to higher education “doesn’t make political, economic or social sense”, Universities UK’s president has warned, drawing on personal experience to urge that education policy should not “write people off because of their choices or experiences early in life”.

Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, took over as UUK president in August, ahead of the Westminster government’s comprehensive spending review on 27 October, which is expected to deliver a minimum entry requirement restricting access to English universities, using English and maths GCSE grades.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor West argued that universities and colleges were “completely behind some of the ambitions the government has”, on levelling up in UK regions and creating a high-wage economy.

THE Campus views: Targeted advice and guidance is crucial for widening participation

But on the spending review, he said it was crucial that those with the “ability and desire…to go to university shouldn’t be impeded”.

“What we want to avoid is artificially creating environments which restrict access to universities for those that want to go to university,” he said. “I’m not suggesting university is for everyone; it isn’t. I’ve got five kids: three went to university and two are doing apprenticeships.”

Highlighting the aims the Conservatives emphasised at their recent conference, Professor West said of any moves to reverse higher education expansion: “Why on earth, if your manifesto is saying ‘levelling up essential, high-value jobs, a high-skilled economy’, why on earth would you damage that? It doesn’t make political sense and it doesn’t make economic sense – and it certainly doesn’t make social sense.”

In terms of the cultural concerns about universities also held by some in government, Gavin Williamson told the recent UUK conference, before his sacking as education secretary, that some universities are “pursuing a divisive agenda involving cancelling national heroes, debating about statues”. Others counter that Black Lives Matter or increasing scrutiny of the legacy of slavery and colonialism are issues not just on university campuses but across society.

Universities, said Professor West, are places where “you are encouraging challenge, you are encouraging debate, encouraging people to understand difference and work through difference”.

“The problem is that the whole piece around Gavin Williamson’s approach was that it starts to politicise everything very quickly…You can’t ignore big events that are happening in society across the globe. It’s important that universities engage with that,” he said.

“Who wins from culture wars? Are the public really interested in this? Or is it just a few people in politics that get exercised?”

Universities can also expect political and media flak as they balance the return to face-to-face teaching with elements of online teaching this term.

“I think what people are trying to do is deliver as much face to face as we possibly can,” said Professor West. “That has to be the loud and clear message.

“Where either pedagogy or limitations because of environment mean that our risk goes up if we deliver it face to face, then we have to accept there may be a need to deliver some aspects online. But that shouldn’t be the majority of what we do.”

Talking about his own experience of education, Professor West said he could remember being on building sites with his plumbing and heating engineer father from the age of four – health and safety was more lax back then, he noted. “I was destined to be a plumber,” he added.

But after school, where he described himself as “not particularly a high achiever”, he decided he “wanted to do something in health”.

He took a three-year course at the Chelsea School of Podiatry, then part of Paddington College, before working in the NHS, taking a four-year part-time degree at the University of Westminster, and then working at King’s College London doing research in diabetic foot disease.

“My route through has been very different…I worked and learned at the same time, had some fantastic tutors that completely changed my world,” Professor West said. “And later on in life I discovered that I was dyslexic, which would explain why I had struggled in other ways.”

Professor West was a panel member on Lord Sainsbury’s review of technical education for the government, published in 2016. In those discussions, he remembered education being likened to an escalator, which he thought was “absolute rubbish”, as “there isn’t an escalator” that takes people from A to B in a uniform route.

Education should be thought of as more like a climbing frame, he argued, with “lots of ways up the climbing frame, lots of places you can stop and rest, lots of places you can change direction”.

“Don’t write people off because of either choices or experiences they have had early in life, because you will waste talent,” said Professor West. “You can change lives at any point.”


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Reader's comments (4)

Thankful that Professor West has expressed this perspective, suggesting a flexible and inclusive atmosphere around education - the climbing frame analogy seems a good one.
Indeed, many thanks for these inspiring views. The climbing frame analogy is my prominent takeaway from this interview.
100% agree. My GCSE grades were mediocre and my A level results even worse, but I went on to get a First from a prominent university, and a PhD from a Russell Group university. It simply took me a while to learn how to learn. You can't write people off aged 16.
Likewise. My A-levels were dire but I had an unconditional offer & a kindly admissions tutor who said "Come along, if it doesn't suit you can go away." I came & literally within a week fell so hard in love with learning that I haven't stopped since.