Open wide, it won't hurt

November 19, 2004

The critics who attacked Bristol's admission policies are now being proved wrong, says Eric Thomas

The appointment of Sir Martin Harris as director of the Office for Fair Access has precipitated yet more debate about higher education, dumbing down and social engineering.

The argument never seems to move on, even though the positive effects of widening participation are becoming plain to see.

Bristol University's department of historical studies has been in the vanguard of widening participation for more than six years and has consequently had to take some venomous criticism.

But when I visited the department recently, staff were bullish about fresh evidence that the policy of encouraging greater diversity was proving their critics wrong. Applications now come from a broader pool of talent and the take-up rate of offers is similar for applicants from all educational backgrounds.

There is a more diverse mix of students - not only in terms of the hoary state/private dichotomy but also in terms of a greater range of ages and ethnic backgrounds.

The department also stressed other, perhaps less immediately predictable, benefits. First, staff felt that the diversification of the undergraduate body has enhanced the sense of departmental community.

They also spoke of a better learning environment. They had noticed how the students listened to one another much more, respected and learnt from their differences and were increasingly engaged with their studies. Students were described as lively, thoughtful, stimulating and a joy to teach.

Most strikingly, there has been a significant improvement in the intellectual environment. There has been an increase in the number of first-class degrees awarded, the level of discussion in seminars is high and written work is consistently good quality.

The average A-level score on entry has climbed steadily from 25.8 points in the Nineties to .6 points in 2003. The average offer has risen from BBC four years ago to AAB/ABB - and the students were achieving or exceeding such grades.

This improvement has occurred in students from all educational backgrounds.

The department was getting the very best people with genuine intellectual power and the ability to think for themselves.

In addition, there has also been much closer involvement with the city, with a small but valuable increase in the number of local students.

Undergraduates have been proactive in establishing and building links with the community. A current example is a mentoring scheme at a local school set up by a former student who now teaches history there.

Finally, the department told me that the sum of all these changes has improved the research environment. Postgraduate recruitment has improved, particularly at MA level.

A more intellectually able and challenging student body has enabled teaching to inform research to a much greater degree (and vice versa), thus helping to stimulate an increasingly dynamic and engaged departmental research culture.

I appreciate that this is anecdotal evidence, but there is published research that shows that the more diverse the student body within which you are educated, the better your education.

It was gratifying to hear this effect so eloquently described by our academic staff.

Bristol was committed to diversifying its student body long before widening participation became such an emotional issue, and we will continue to be committed long after it falls off the political radar.

We are refining our widening participation strategy, which includes residential summer schools, tours, taster sessions, masterclasses and enrichment days at the university, and the mentoring and tutoring by our students of pupils in local schools with a view to raising aspirations and attainment.

We are committed to this because we are committed to equity of access. But we also do it because it improves the academic and cultural environment and leads to a better undergraduate experience for our students, whatever their educational and social backgrounds.

There is no evidence of dumbing down from this experience - perhaps we should start to talk about "enriching up".

Eric Thomas is vice-chancellor of Bristol University.

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