Higher purpose: new universities still key to social progress as elite fall short, says retiring v-c

June 28, 2011

The purpose of higher education needs to be more than preparing students for jobs if we are to avoid a future where “people know their place and stay there,” according to an outgoing vice-chancellor.

Caroline Gipps, who is retiring as vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton after six years in charge of the institution, called her public lecture Who goes to university? And why it matters her “valedictory address” at the university.

Professor Gipps, who delivered her lecture on Monday, said that it was leaving the “rather elite” Institute of Education for Kingston University in 1999 that made her aware of widening participation.

She also noted that it was universities such as Kingston and Wolverhampton that do the “heavy lifting” when it came to widening access.

“If we did not exist,” she said of these institutions, “thousands of people with lower qualifications, and/or from lower social class families or backgrounds, would not have become graduates, would not have entered the professions and gained other advantages.”

Wolverhampton currently receives in the region of £7 million to £8 million a year to support the education of those from low participation neighbourhoods, Professor Gipps said.

However, she added that such support was not necessarily guaranteed to continue, and asked: “What will happen to this funding stream in the brave new world of September 2012?”

Professor Gipps predicted problems ahead for the coalition government. “The Conservatives believe that too many students are going to university, while the Lib Dems are committed to social mobility,” she said.

Professor Gipps said that part of the problem with social mobility was the focus placed on widening access to elite universities. She cited statistics comparing Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Westminster, which each took 425 students on free school meals, with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which, in contrast, admitted 40 such students between the two institutions.

“We are talking about tiny numbers,” she said. “The key role in widening participation is of universities like ours.”


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