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Issue 473, 19 November 2001

The Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Alan Wilson's opening address:

It is a great pleasure for us to be hosting this conference. I believe that widening participation is one of the two or three critical issues for higher education today. It is also one of the critical issues for the country. In both the short run and the longer run, the knowledge economy needs more graduates. But widening participation is just as important for the social development of the country. Higher education is not simply an economic instrument — important though that is — it provides individuals with the basis for their life opportunities and it is deeply civilising. I raised a laugh in a degree ceremony speech last summer — unintentionally — when I quoted some statistics which showed that graduates — no doubt with a small number of exceptions — do not commit crimes! Also, they have enjoyed living in the wonderful multi-ethnic communities which universities represent — and so the last thing they would think of, or practice, is any racial discrimination. They are healthier. Think of the implications for the police, benefits and health budgets if the graduate statistics could be reflected in a greater proportion of our society.

What is more, we know that the Government’s 50% target is achievable. I am convinced of it from my personal experience. I am more recently convinced of it by our experience in the University in Leeds of Ogden scholarships. As I think is now well known, Sir Robert Ogden finances scholarships for kids in South Yorkshire — in areas such as mining villages - to secure them at school or College and to attract them to HE. We awarded 26 in the first year, and we now award 40 each year. In selection, we aim as much at need as academic ability. Many scholars tell me when I meet them on campus here that without the scholarships, they would not have been able to stay on at 16.

We have just had the A-level results of the first 26. 24 have achieved university places — spread around the country, not just in Leeds — and the scheme will continue to support them through their university careers. So it can be done. It is significant that a scheme run from this University has generated students for a wide range of universities. From our perspective, there is real pleasure in the achievement and I would like to think we were being altruistic on behalf of the system. What it also shows is the diversity of the HE system, and that this diversity is needed to serve the widening participation aspirations of even relatively small communities such as the South Yorkshire ones we have been supporting.

This scheme also illustrates FE-HE partnerships because many of the scholars come through Barnsley or Doncaster Colleges. We now have the opportunity to extend these partnerships ourselves following our merger with Bretton Hall. This provides not only HE opportunities at Bretton itself, but also gives us a Wakefield campus. We look forward to working with our friends in Wakefield College and serving the mid-Yorkshire region. And, of course, we have worked with the FE Colleges in Leeds for many years. We have a strategic alliance with Park Lane and work with that College on a number of access courses. We work with the Leeds College of Technology in areas like printing, where we embrace both FE and HE levels between us. And we have long-established relationships with the Leeds College of Music and the Leeds College of Art and Design.

I am delighted that the core ideas of the Ogden scholarships scheme have been taken up by the Government, through education maintenance awards and elements of the Excellence in Cities programme. We will look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the DfES, the Regional Office and the West Yorkshire (and North Yorkshire) Learning and Skills Councils.

There is, of course, much more work to do. We can all learn from experience and enhance and extend the schemes we have. All this will be helped by the widening participation funding which has been provided to universities through HEFCE — and this has certainly helped us to enhance our own programmes. We now have a very wide range of initiatives, including the Campus Connect and Community Action programmes that are so brilliantly supported by our own students. In addition, we, for example, are currently exploring the development of foundation degrees in collaboration with our FE College partners. We also look forward to the Minister’s review of student support funding — because that is another important component of policy — not least in seeking to treat part-time students on the same footing as full-time ones.

I look forward to the conference fuelling new ideas. Above all, I look forward to a version of this conference in a few years’ time when we can celebrate the achievement of the 50% participation rate — and when we can look ahead to even higher targets.

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