Category Archives: Social Mobility

Despite talent and determination, many people are don’t experience equal opportunities for success due to their social or economic background. This is an issue that FMS EDI aim to combat.

AUA conference 2019: Higher Education – Fit for the future?

Every year, the AUA (Association of University Administrators) hosts their Annual Conference and Exhibition, which gives those working in higher education the opportunity to attend sessions delivered by specialists and leading practitioners, share ideas and best practise, and learn about the latest sector developments. Their AGM is also hosted at the Conference.

This year’s AUA Conference and Exhibition was held on the 15th and 16th April at the University of Manchester and the theme was Higher Education – Fit for the Future? It focused on some of the challenges and inequalities in higher education and what changes must be made to prepare for the future.

Malasree Home, FMS’ Athena SWAN Support Officer, has written about her experiences at this year’s Conference:

I have to secretly confess that, on that Monday morning, I was really excited for the ASA Annual Conference, and that it was the fantastic conference freebie – the AUA water bottle – that did it for me. The remainder of the two days could only get better!

As with most AUA conferences, there was something for everyone. The plenaries and keynote sessions were really interesting, focussing on the challenges ahead for the HE sector and the implications that this may have for management and governance in HE institutions. Here’s a quick run through some of the bits that I really enjoyed, and the things that made me think.

I thoroughly enjoyed the keynoted delivered by Jess Moody from Advance HE. Jess talked about the balance between ‘Excellence’ and ‘Equity’, and the challenges across the sector, especially regarding student attainment, and the fact that, while HE institutions work towards gender equity, there are often discrepancies with regards to other protected characteristics. Jess focused on the need to integrate EDI and Widening Participation more, but also raised a point that I found fascinating – can ‘data’ allow us to intervene, and what are the ethics surrounding that?

While I was disappointed that one of the sessions that I had signed up for was cancelled at short notice (‘Looking Behind the Label – Mental Health in the Workplace’), it was great to think outside the box in two sessions focusing on a positive workplace culture. One discussed the GROW model of coaching, while the other (fantastically titled ‘Yoga and the Hokey-Pokey’), focused on how teams can think creatively to enable solutions.

Though a bit bleary eyed after the AUA Gala dinner (though I have to confess that I called in a relatively early night) I also found the session on ‘Leading Change from the Bottom Up’ fascinating – the session presenters took us a through a successful restructure of a department to streamline processes. Change, in itself is a very pertinent topic in Higher Education, with almost every organisation going through some form of change at any moment in time, on a variety of scales. Yet, while relevant, it is also an uncomfortable topic, and the presenters showed consummate skill in not just describing the intricacies of their scenario, but also fielding the questions from the audience.

Indeed, it is the sheer variety of topics that makes this conference so interesting. As a participant, you can dip your toes into areas of HE that might not be your role, yet still come back with insights that can then be pertinent to how you do your day job! It also gives you an idea of the breadth of change and challenges in the sector. Even as I write this blog, I realise that a lot has changed since the event itself, especially with the Augar Review of post-18 education having been launched on the 30th May.

However, it will be remiss of me not to mention the icing on the cake – the AUA Conga. I was too chicken to join in, but it was great to watch. If you don’t believe me, check out the video on the AUA twitter! Enough said.

If you like the sound of these sessions and feel like getting involved, next year’s conference will be hosted at the University of Nottingham on the 6th and 7th April 2020. See you there!

Annual event?

Empty conference

With the new academic year just about upon us, the Guardian has published two articles online this week about the accessibility of academic conferences. The first focuses on disability and how too many conferences, perhaps without intention, exclude a large disabled contingent simply by the nature of their design. The article claims that accessible routes on transport, access to rooms and lecture halls, and often long and intensive days all act as significant barriers for anyone with a disability. Importantly, the article also address the more ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as the social difficulties someone with autism might face at a large conference dinner, or the stresses associated with needing to follow a strict diet without reassurance this will be provided.The fact is that worries about these potential obstacles to a smooth conference are preventing certain academics from attending them. Which means we are missing out on their expertise, ideas and knowledge when relatively simple measures could be put into place to make their experience better. It might not be intentional. But it’s still discrimination.

Another barrier to access at conferences highlighted in a different article is a financial one. In recent years, the nature of conferences has changed considerably, moving from small University-based gatherings to delegations in their thousands at expensive hotels, complete with a programme of social events. Costs have soared. Which means that many early career researchers with miniscule budgets for academic travel are being excluded by default. This means that the delegations tend to be comprised of the Big Grant Guys: The professors and senior academics who attend every year to network with the same people and present work from the same labs. Which is all well and good, if it was interspersed with some new faces to learn from them who would bring their own fresh ideas. But if they can’t afford to go, does anything really move forwards?

Our EDI team in the Faculty of Medical Sciences has been working on an events Code of Practice (CoP) to address exactly these issues. We want to make sure that nobody  is excluded from attending an event, regardless of their background or disability. Where possible, all of our events and workshops are free to attend and we work closely with units across the faculty to find ways to better support early career researchers to attend external conferences. Our new CoP encourages event organisers to think carefully about sectors they are recruiting from to ensure as diverse a mix of speakers and delegates as possible. It also prompts organisers to consider aspects such as accessibility for disabilities, and providing a sensitive and comfortable environment for all.

We would encourage more conference organisers to consider the wider spectrum of potential delegates in future, to provide accessible and affordable access to what are incredibly useful forums for change and ideas…

Bigger than bullies

Lego police 

A report on today’s BBC news has highlighted how ‘almost 40%’ of 10-17 year olds are worried about crime. Was theft, stalking or assault something that you worried about as a teenager? Or has something shifted in society to make this a prime teenage cause for concern?

The findings come from The Children’s Society annual report, which notes the disturbing finding that happiness amongst the 3000 children surveyed every year is falling, and that other concerns such as parental debt and money struggles are a large anxiety for many. These are adult concerns that children as young as 10 years old are worrying about. As practitioners in the educational and medical professions, we need to be aware of these difficulties and start to think about how we can offer support.

Where crime is concerned at least, the reality might not be as bleak as the perception. 17% of children reported a crime in the last year, suggesting that the probability of being a victim is nowhere near as high as the number of children worrying about it. The report suggests that the prevalence of social media may be to blame in highlighting and exaggerating crimes without really providing a context or reassurance for children. Nonetheless, the fact remains that many children, often from already deprived or vulnerable backgrounds, are living in fear of crimes that are stealing away the innocence of their childhood.

Given that many individuals will leave home to come to University, reassurance and support about crime and money worries should be an important consideration, especially in ensuring the most vulnerable and affected have a safe and protected route into education. Many Universities now have active campaigns to ensure safety on campuses, but perhaps outreach work could begin earlier to address and ameliorate some of the underlying issues and concerns. If we are serious about encouraging a more diverse cohort into Higher Education, we need to be pro-active in understanding where they’re coming from. Reports such as this one can be a great place to start…

Prevention or Cure?

University door

With A-Level results being published this week and UK Universities gearing up for clearing, talk in the HE sector has turned, once again, to standard-setting in the ‘elite’ institutions. A report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in collaboration with the social mobility charity Brightside was released yesterday with the recommendation that ‘top’ UK institutions should take the context of applicants more into account, lowering offers from AAA to 3 Cs.Their argument is that students from under-privileged or deprived backgrounds should be given the opportunity to gain access to education, and not be penalised for lower grades that are a product of their social environment rather than ability or intellect.

Do you agree? Here at Newcastle Uni, like many Russell Group institutions, schemes are already in place to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds gain access to degree programmes. Foundation degrees allow students to supplement their grades with a year of study whilst summer programmes provide a route in by providing intense training that guarantees lower entry offers.But the HEPI report argues that this is not enough: A foundation degree is an extra year of fees that not everybody can afford, and lowering grades by 1 or 2 points still may not help.

The issue is perhaps whether we are looking to prevent or cure the barriers. Yes, you can lower grades so that students who wouldn’t otherwise make the standard can get through the doors. But what happens then? If their social and economic backgrounds have posed barriers to them achieving what they’re capable of through school, what is to say anything changes when they become freshers? Perhaps instead of simply lowering the Uni gates, we need to be building a smoother path to get there.

It seems that perhaps a more robust solution might be to target the barriers that exist in the first place. It’s not acceptable that an individual’s social circumstances should prevent them from achieving to their maximum ability. We shouldn’t be living in a world where students are ‘labelled’ by their entitlement to free school meals and then given ‘special’ considerations to get onto courses where the grades are set high for good academic reason. Instead we should be supporting students to achieve their full potential so that they can make the grades. And will enter the Uni gates knowing that they have the same academic talent as all of their peers to succeed on challenging degree courses.

‘Letting people in’ is perhaps not the issue. Allowing people to come in might be more on point…