Mary Stuart knows at first hand the life of the inner-city poor. Now a Sussex pro vice-chancellor, she is determined to give them every chance to attend university, writes Pat Leon.
Mary Stuart was a social security "scrounger" to use the words of the Thatcherites. She got pregnant, lost her job and became homeless. When she was given a council house, she furnished it from skips; if a man came to the door selling cheap goods, she got out her purse and asked no questions.
Stuart was like hundreds of thousands of other women -and men -living in inner-city poverty in the 1980s. But language, like life, changes. If she lived with her baby twins on that south London housing estate now, Blairites would label her "socially disadvantaged" or "excluded" and she would be the target of policies to get her into work or study, or both.
Such labelling irritates Stuart, and with good reason. It tells only a part of her story and, she fears, that of many others. Stuart felt neither helpless nor isolated when she was poor. She did not think herself socially excluded. She worked, "got an education" and got out. She is now a pro vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex. As a senior university figure, she has a chance to speak out and is using it: to decry language that smacks of "do-gooding" and a remedial approach to learning. "What I want is for people to be as enthused about learning as I became," Stuart says. "That means good teaching, cutting-edge research, a supportive environment and student diversity, but also a university that engages with the 21st century."
Universities are in a perfect position to help the so-called disadvantaged, Stuart says, but they must listen and understand more about the communities they serve. "The questions most would-be students ask about further study is: 'Is it vocational? Will I get a job out of it?' People have to think that higher education is a possibility. That means looking at the curriculum and providing flexible routes in.
"One of the problems with widening participation is that it is focused on the status quo and stretching it to include a greater proportion of the population. It does not address curriculum change."
Stuart's ideas about disadvantage and the importance of listening to the community developed from her experiences in Cape Town, South Africa, where she grew up. "I wanted to be an actress and went to university in 1976 just as Nlanga, the Cape Town equivalent of Soweto, blew up.
"It was a baptism of fire. I had not really thought about things before then. When people were being shot in the streets, students were asked to help because people were afraid to go to the hospital because the police might arrest them. We were wrapping bandages and nursing people when we were not nurses or doctors. How could I not take a stand?" Stuart worked with the People's Space Theatre in Cape Town while studying for a drama degree. When she graduated, she left the country. "At that time we thought Nelson Mandela would never be free. I had an Irish passport. I could get out, so it reached a point when I did." That is how she found herself in London in 1981 with no place to live.
But Stuart moved on to work as a drama teacher at Westminster Play Association, direct "Cast Underground" Community Theatre and study for an Open University social science degree. By 1987, she was working in adult education, and she became a senior lecturer in special education at Lambeth Community College. In 1991, Stuart gained a lectureship at Sussex's Centre for Continuing Education, of which she became assistant director in 1995. Last year, she was appointed one of two pro vice-chancellors under the new vice-chancellor, Alasdair Smith, and a new deputy vice-chancellor. "It's a new management team. We are all from Sussex, so we know what is going on.
"Pro vice-chancellors are appointed in an old-fashioned, almost collectivist way. You do it for a few years, then you go back again. We do not have a budget or staff, but we work with people and develop their ideas. We negotiate with the outside world. It's about the art of persuasion."
Stuart and her colleagues will certainly put their persuasive talents to the test in the next two years. Sussex University, which prided itself on its vanguard interdisciplinary teaching through schools of study, is radically rethinking its curriculum offer for 2003 in the light of student funding difficulties and the need to expand access. It is using money from its learning and teaching strategy.
One of the ideas floated is to open the full-time curriculum to part-timers. Until now, the university has largely offered the full-time courses and the Centre for Continuing Education the part-time. "More and more students are in effect part-timers because they are struggling financially," Stuart says.
A possible option would be to offer a degree based on one year's full-time study, two years part-time and a final year full-time. A student union survey has indicated that the model could be popular.
The university already runs a student employment centre, which Stuart says could work with the careers development unit to match students' skills and jobs. "Students are already working and not earning a lot," Stuart says. "If we can offer them slightly better jobs, they would not have to work so many hours."
Stuart rejects the suggestion that students might undercut the local labour market. Brighton's location in the labour-hungry Southeast is a plus point, she says. Besides tourism, the city is a popular choice for high-tech start-ups and other light industries.
The curriculum reform is throwing all sorts of things into the pot, Stuart says. "Everything is up for grabs -how can we increase support systems for students, how can we make their experience more varied? There is a lot of talking going on in schools and between schools, such as between philosophers and biologists. It is absolutely the right time with the ethical issues raised by mapping the human genome. We are also doing a radical shake-up of the arts curriculum. We are looking at our offer. We see media science as a new curriculum area, for example, that involves IT, design and technology, the hardware and the software. We are considering throwing them together."
Flexibility is key, Stuart says, but it needs planning. "A really wise friend of mine told me that to manage change well, you have to decide what has to change and what has to stay the same. There is no point if we lose the star qualities."