Lammy's verdict: still a long way to go on access

Widespread prejudices and assumptions must be overcome, new HE Minister tells Rebecca Attwood

October 30, 2008

"I grew up in Tottenham in the 1970s and early '80s and I think if you had asked anyone there whether it was probable, likely - possible - that I would be the Minister of State for Higher Education, they would have laughed hysterically in your face," David Lammy says of his new position at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius).

Mr Lammy spoke to Times Higher Education in the first weeks of his promotion in the government reshuffle.

Mr Lammy, 36, was one of five children of Guyanese parents and was raised by his council-worker mother after his father walked out when he was 11.

That year, he won a choral scholarship to the King's School in Peterborough, became head boy and applied to Cambridge University. "It was a very daunting process - as it is for anyone who has an interview at Cambridge. In the end, as nice as they were to me, I didn't get the grades to go."

Instead, Mr Lammy studied law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), an institution he describes as "an absolute gem", and went on to become the first black Briton to study for a masters in law at Harvard University.

As soon as Tottenham elected him Britain's youngest MP in 2000, he was tipped as the nation's first black Prime Minister.

"Mr Lammy has been dubbed the black Blair because his track record is uncannily similar to the PM's," said The Sun after then Prime Minister Tony Blair gave him his first government job, as junior health minister. "Like his role model, he is a barrister, a former choirboy and a keen Christian."

He had been set up for a fall - and it came in 2004, when his handling of a Commons debate on the controversial "living wills" Bill was lambasted in the press.

A Labour loyalist who voted in favour of introducing student top-up fees and the Iraq war, he was Skills Minister at Dius before his promotion earlier this month.

Mr Lammy says his upbringing means he understands the power of education.

"I come to this job really aware of not just the economic benefits of education - the fact that I can pay my mortgage, provide for my own family - but that the education I have experienced, the joys of learning for learning's sake, of a liberal arts education at Soas and Harvard, have profoundly changed my life."

Mr Lammy is an associate fellow of the Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick and is "very proud" of his honorary doctorate from the University of East London.

"I sometimes think if I wasn't in politics I might quite like to be a lecturer, if someone would have me. I have been known to do the odd guest lecture and thoroughly enjoyed it."

Writing in a newspaper in 2004, Mr Lammy said: "Whereas Harvard is all over Harlem, I simply don't see enough of Britain's top universities in Tottenham, and I'm sure the same is true in Toxteth or Peckham."

Four years on, he said universities have made progress, but "there is a long way to go".

In his constituency, he adds, schools are improving and more students are going into higher education, but he asks: "Are they going across the breadth of HE? I think there is more that we can do there. Are there still prejudices and assumptions that sometimes are made in schools by teachers about what is possible? Yes of course there are, and we have to overcome those."

He believes "passionately" in the importance of people experiencing, as he did, very different environments, and says the breadth and diversity of the university experiences that are possible in this country is not always acknowledged.

"I am as concerned about a white working-class young man in Middlesbrough having the opportunity to experience the diversity of Leicester, or Bradford, as I am of a young child in Brixton experiencing the opportunities of Southampton or Oxford, if their ability can take them there. I believe in that plurality - I am a product of that plurality."

The education system now has "some of the best professionals that the education system has ever seen", Mr Lammy argues. He sees part of his role as being about finding the vehicles for those in schools, colleges and universities to work together.

An immediate priority will be communicating the role higher education can play in difficult economic times.

"The huge contribution that universities and science parks play in developing technology will see us through and out of this economic downturn," he claims.

Short and part-time courses, and the demographic shift, are also high on his agenda.

On funding, he said that every vice-chancellor he has met so far believed that it had been a good ten years for higher education.

"I can't anticipate the next spending review, but we are clearly going into different, difficult economic times and we have got to get the most for the money that we put in."

But he adds: "I love this sector and I am just really excited to have the opportunity to do this - it is not something I ever imagined."

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