Means business

Ruth Farwell, chair of GuildHE, plans to boost the sector's diversity by welcoming private providers with open arms

November 5, 2009

Ruth Farwell has spent most of her career in post-1992 institutions and has dedicated much of her time to widening university participation among people from poor backgrounds.

Now, the vice-chancellor of Bucks New University, and chair of GuildHE, is hoping to open up higher education to another excluded group - the private sector.

GuildHE is a mission group with 31 members, five of them private providers, and Dr Farwell said she wanted to reach out to more institutions from across the divide.

"I think it's important that private providers are embraced and not seen as a threat," she said, adding that both sides have things to learn from and share with one another.

She predicted that the distinctions between public and private in the sector would become increasingly blurred.

"We're private organisations that happen to receive quite a large amount of public funding, and some more than others," she said. "We are not public sector in the same way that hospitals are. There's almost a spectrum and some universities are already quite close to some of the private institutions."

Dr Farwell began her career as a lecturer in mathematics at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, later becoming head of the department. One of her priorities was to widen access to a subject that sometimes draws students from a small pool.

She said: "I've been thinking about barriers to accessing things, in the sense of getting to grips intellectually with subjects such as maths. It's about how you deliver some quite difficult concepts."

After a stint at the University of Brighton as head of strategic planning, in 1998 she joined London South Bank University as dean of academic affairs. In 2006, Dr Farwell was appointed vice-chancellor of Bucks. She led a rebranding exercise and saw the institution gain university status. Now, as chair of GuildHE, she hopes the mission group will be guided by the same principles that her university follows.

The group's priority, she said, should be to focus on student experience and engagement while also forming closer links with employers and widening participation.

Asserting GuildHE's credentials as an "inclusive" group, she said: "We're taking a strong stance in support of diversity in the higher education sector. We believe that we're preaching and practising that - we already have a diverse membership and want to proclaim the benefits for students of having a diverse education sector."

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