This blog contains the letter I wrote and posted to the Minister of State for Universities on the day of my Open University degree result. I am sadly yet to receive a reply, and have since moved address but hope that my message made it – even though I am just one teeny, tiny voice.
Trigger Warning: Suicide
Dear Michelle Donelan,
I am writing regarding your recent speech on the future of Higher Education which has in many ways, deeply troubled me.
I wholeheartedly agree that university is not necessarily the best route for all and have friends who have been successful both with and without a university education. However, this statement I find raises concerns with regards to your commitment to the future of Widening Participation (WP) programmes and their funding.
I was a WP student – I received support from my local university, attended taster sessions there and even spent a week at Oxford University Medical School as part of the Sutton Trust Summer School programme. I have since gone on to work on two WP teams alongside my studies – work that not only enabled me to give back, but also supported my own studies financially.
I grew up in a low income household, my family have no GCSEs between them, and my mum cleaned the local school for a living. We had a lot of family debt which made day to day living a financial challenge. I was in paid work from the age of thirteen and university always felt like a far flung dream.
WP gave me the chance to meet students just like me, to explore subjects that I had never heard of (essentially those that weren’t school subjects), and to see all the benefits of continuing education. Without WP, I wouldn’t have met any people outside of my school or dentist/doctor’s surgery who had a graduate education.
The research work of the OECD indicates that by the age of seven, children have already limited their career aspirations. “You can’t be what you can’t see” – and this means WP is vitally important, in fact, you could argue should be extended, to ensure earlier coverage of options (see the fabulous work of Primary Futures!)
WP never seeks to erase children’s aspirations, only to raise them – if they want to be a YouTuber, a plumber or take on their family business and don’t want to go to university – we congratulate them and encourage them. WP isn’t about misleading young people; it’s about arming them with all the available choices for them to make a proper informed decision about their future – something I couldn’t have done without WP programmes.
Where alternative options do exist, they need to be viable. Apprenticeships can be problematic for disadvantaged young people. Pay for an apprenticeship needs to enable the young person to be self-supporting. Many families living with disadvantage cannot support their child to work for £3.97 per hour instead of finding full paid work beyond the age of 18, cutting their educational path short. I was lucky to take an apprenticeship with food and board covered, but the skills from it weren’t accepted outside of the company. I had considered further apprentice options to enhance my skills in childcare/youth work but could never afford to take the pay cut to work as an apprentice without food and board – it simply would not cover my rent.
You further spoke about university drop-outs:
“If a student goes to university and then drops out after year 1 and has a year’s debt, what does that deliver for their social mobility? Nothing. In fact, it sets them back in life. It’s about them completing high quality academically rigorous courses that then lead to graduate jobs, and that’s the important measure we should be looking at”
Firstly, my back story: I received seven A*s, two A’s and a B at GCSE. I naturally went on to study for A Levels and had three offers made for Dentistry. Unfortunately, I left with AABC (plus CD at AS) with my B in Chemistry (just one mark off the A grade) and I lost my place. I eventually went to university in 2010 (after working and doing an apprenticeship) to study BSc (Hons) Biomedical Science at a Russell Group University.
Between the strain of long course hours, part time work and my personal circumstances I struggled to get on with the course. I transferred to the BSc (Hons) Chemistry programme in the hope that a more practical subject would be more engaging and help me push through, but my struggle continued.
I eventually ended up leaving when in the Easter of that second year, my friend committed suicide and the university counsellor told me that they could not provide support. Indeed, they even went as far as telling me my friend’s suicide “didn’t count” because she was not a member of my direct family.
I left university in floods of tears, I was always the A grade student, always pushing to be top of my class and I had been let down. For the following four years I told everyone that university was not for me.
In those four years I saw friends in museum education take on more exciting roles because they had a degree and I didn’t, I worked summers managing youth programmes alongside graduates who were surprised I would be unemployed when the summer drew to a close, and I watched as friends graduated or spoke fondly of their “career” while all I had was a “job”.
By this point I had joined and started training with the Royal Naval Reserve as an Officer, having passed the Admiralty Interview Board. I felt out of place and lacked confidence in training. I’d more than qualified for my place, but I was left feeling trampled by successful graduate colleagues.
I thought that I couldn’t go back to university because Student Finance England calculate funding as: Years of Course + Spare Year – Years of Previous study, leaving any potential university asking for £9000 up front because I wasn’t eligible for loans in Year 1.
Eventually, after much convincing, I looked at Nursing & Allied Health – some of the few degrees that did allow funding despite previous study and settled on BSc (Hons) Children’s Nursing. This course rapidly became a poor fit for me – I was successful and received good grades and placement feedback, but I did not enjoy my placements. I realised I was living for school placements and WP work. I knew I had made a mistake and I transferred for my final year to The Open University where I studied one module from Childhood & Youth and one module from Primary Education to leave with a BSc (Hons) Open degree. I will go on to teacher training locally through School Direct (Primary) in September.
I’m proud of my degree, and I’m proud that despite every hurdle thrown my way, I graduate this week. So, I’m a student that went to university and then dropped out after year 2 and had 2 year’s debt, what did that deliver for my social mobility? Everything. In fact, I came back fighting. It’s not about completing high quality academically rigorous courses that lead to graduate jobs, it’s about the skills, experience, confidence and aspirations that I have developed along the way. It’s about the sheer determination to get to the end and sit behind a laptop I bought for myself, telling the Universities Minister that it is most definitely about groups. We have so much we can offer, for example, by diversifying the white middle class image of teaching. If your mum cleans the school toilets you 100% can be a teacher – maybe one day even the Headteacher.
Please, I urge you, don’t forget about me, or the thousands of other young people who share my wobbly pathway to success. Instead, please look to raising our aspirations and helping us stay in university long enough to reach them.
Things I believe could help:
- I agree, more flexible and part time routes are ideal but please do not blur the lines here. Part time often means evening classes – this is not flexible. We don’t all work 9-5 (as most critical workers will tell you).
- Flexible courses need more financial support. I was lucky that my partner supported me this year to complete my Open University modules and cut back on work, but the reality is many are simply working double time – with no maintenance loans and no entitlement to childcare.
- Unlike most disadvantaged students, I agree that a university education should cost. So, we probably have that in common. However, when it costs so much that repeating a year becomes unimaginable or access to loans to cover these costs is capped by previous study, you leave people who wish to change career, or who made a poor course/university choices at 18 locked out of the system, with few ways of being able to afford to pay themselves back in. Imagine if we were all held fully accountable for every decision made at 18 in this way.
- You spoke of the 20% attainment gap between black and white students. Academic support, anonymised marking, and listening to black voices on this matter is so important – I direct you here to the work of the awe inspiring Hayley Mulenda – a student who returned to university after dropping out due to mental ill health a few years ago. She’s written a book and continues to present motivational talks about her journey.
- Support is needed for those struggling with estrangement or leaving the care system. Extending financial support coming from universities to support summer accommodation for care leavers and funds for students experiencing unexpected hardship are vital. Estrangement is particularly forgotten by many HE providers and the work of the Stand Alone Pledge needs wider coverage.
- Continuing with WP programmes, and expanding programmes such as Primary Futures exposing minority groups to both university and a wealth of other career choices (because “You can’t be what you can’t see”).
- Improving student mental health services and continuing to work on expanding health transition services beyond the age of 18. For many the shift to university is a challenging time made worse by poor transition to adult health/mental health services or lack of access to these services at a time of acute change and stress. I witnessed this first-hand on my nursing course. One big indicator that a student is struggling is often a change in their engagement and attendance. I cannot understand why, when universities so often record this data, it is used to penalise rather than support the student in question. How many lives and futures could be saved if we saw this as a point of support rather than ruling someone unfit for academic success?
- Consulting with students to explore the challenges contributing to low retention numbers rather than assuming we drop out because university was a poor choice for us. I believe there’s a lot to be learnt from consulting, particularly with non-traditional students and those who have prematurely left higher education.
University is so much more than my degree, and it will always be so much more than my pay cheque. It’s at the very least, developing the confidence to write to an MP and champion that same chance for every other little bright spark sat without central heating, eating beans on toast for the third night running, who wrongly believes only the privileged go to university.
I will always continue to raise aspirations and champion opportunities for those groups less likely to pursue higher education, because in the wise words of Teach First: “Where you come from shouldn’t affect where you’re going”.