Widening participation won’t work without academics (UK)

What’s the best way to bring together widening participation teams and academics? Tony Sewell discusses a project at Imperial where scientists worked to inspire young students I’ve just spent a fascinating few weeks on tour around some of Britain’s leading universities, talking to widening  participation (WP) staff about how we can take our work to the next level. It made for lively discussion and debate. My visits took place at a time when universities are under more sustained pressure than ever before to improve access for  young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, and politicians like universities minister David Willetts are quite rightly  demanding a more evidence-based approach to which types of WP really work and how the hundreds of millions of public funds  are best spent.

While open days, career events, and enhanced communication between schools and universities have an invaluable role to play  in WP, I believe that a focus on subject knowledge is too often the missing link. Universities complain that too many  applicants and undergraduates lack the knowledge needed for demanding courses while some of our most talented students narrowly miss the grades they need to access the courses of their choice due to lack of subject knowledge. So let’s square the circle.

At the heart of the conundrum lies our old friend communication (lack of). We often find that academics in individual STEM departments – where Generating Genius focuses its efforts – are unaware of the excellent work being done by their WP teams and therefore don’t know how best to get involved. For their part, WP departments are reluctant to approach academics, fearful of burdening them with additional work. Or they may be concerned that academics lack experience in working with school-level students. Often, universities, facing high demand from schools, feel that they have to limit WP involvement to a single, trusted team of academics who they can rely upon to deliver.

Our approach is to make direct contact with academics. Once contact is made, and our objectives explained, our experience is that they are invariably happy to contribute. At Imperial College London, for example, our approaches yielded a highly successful research project on malaria for  students that we work with. A member of the physics department played an anchor role and became our “Trojan horse”,  navigating us around the complexities of a university with myriad levels of activity. This work was always alongside the WP department, and we took care not to break university protocols. We are scrupulous in  asking permission from the head of WP to approach academics and all our emails are copied to the WP department.

At Imperial, feedback was that these academics, though aware of WP work, had never been approached to take part. With help  and support from the WP team, we were able to scope the university to find the academics who best fitted our programme. The malaria team at Imperial recognised that science has a communication problem and they realised that if they could communicate very difficult and complex science to 12 year-olds, pitching to potential funders would be child’s play. What is often overlooked is that, once involved, academics get a real buzz out of using their subject knowledge to inspire  the next generation. Those who took part in our project at Imperial found that meeting 12 to 13 year-olds who wanted to  know about their subject created an energy which delighted all those involved. The message is that engagement in WP is far more than a tick-box exercise that reflects well on academics within the  university; it can create a pathway into commerce and business. WP can also, of course, be used for the professional  development of academic staff.

Getting involved in WP is not a distraction to their major work of research and teaching; it is an asset. They are  preparing a new generation to come into their field and being challenged to communicate complex science to a young audience. And, most importantly, they discover that enthusing young people about the field of interest that is their life’s work is enormously inspiring. Dr Tony Sewell is founder and chief executive of Generating Genius and chair of the Mayor’s Inquiry into London Schools.  His university visits were in association with the National HE STEM Programme. He tweets at @GeneratingG.

Source: Guardian Higher Education http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/25/academic-involvement-in-widening-participation