Widening Access – Just a Buzzword?

While its fresh in my mind, I feel compelled to write a short reflection on yesterday’s teaching activities – it was a day that pushed me outside of my comfort zone, offered up a new and exciting challenge, and was immensely rewarding in every way. For the first time, I ran a session for a group of A-level students participating on the University of Bristol’s ‘Access to Bristol‘ scheme – and it was awesome. It prompted me to think about some of the wider issues facing higher education in the UK, so hopefully this can serve as something of a small contribution to the continuing conversations on the issue widening access more generally.

Wills Memorial

The University of Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building – an ‘ivory tower’ for local students?

Access to Bristol is designed for local A-level students who are interested in pursuing their studies at university level. There are 24 subject streams including my own, Historical Studies, with each stream attracting somewhere in the region of 20-25 students per year. Participants attend a series of workshops in their chosen subject designed to introduce them to the kind of study they can one day expect as undergraduates – no prior knowledge of the subject matter is assumed. Each person writes a reflective journal as they progress through the course and, with help from some wonderful undergraduate volunteers, are given the opportunity to ‘try before they buy’ a university degree. (Buy a university degree? I know, right – but I’m just using it as a figure of speech here!) Those who go on to study at Bristol, and come from households with combined incomes of less than £25,000, are given a year’s free tuition and a generous bursary worth £3,750 p.a. for each year of study.

Going into it, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. My contribution was titled ‘Roundhead Curs and Cavalier Dogs: Fighting the English Civil War in Print’. At the outset, I at least figured that working with some juicy civil war pamphlets would help get people talking. If you’ve not seen them before, they carry exciting woodcut images like this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 09.23.40

Cavaliers do what Cavaliers do best – murder, pillage and burn. Or at least, this is what the parliamentary gutter-press accused them of doing.

Its easy to discern my line of thinking on this one!

I started with a brief 30 minute lecture to ensure that everyone had enough basic knowledge to start working with the primary sources: a quick hand count at the start of the session confirmed my suspicions that very few of them would have ever studied the English Civil War before (why is that, by the way? what a travesty!) In groups of 4-5, students then looked at a number of images and transcribed extracts, the task being simply to discuss the material in front of them as small groups. Volunteers from each group then relayed some of that information back to the whole group – I’m delighted to say that 2 people from each table were willing and very capable volunteers.

The session rounded off with some whole-group discussions: first, I asked them to identify any patterns within the material; second, to find out whether they would have sided with King or Parliament. At this point, the conversation ran away from me a bit – one of those really great times where (aside from a few gesticulations), you don’t have to say anything yourself. It was wonderful to see them linking the material they’d just analysed with work they were doing for their A-levels (Cromwell as Chairman Mao, anyone?) and actually starting to engage in a proper debate. Are you for King or Parliament? Hurrah for King Charles! Parliament, for liberty and religious toleration! And, especially satisfying for a fan of John Morrill, ‘neither – they’re both as bad as each other!’

So what did I learn?

  1. Great students who might not otherwise go to university are out there waiting to be found. They might need a little extra encouragement. The statistics show that about 50% of those who take Access to Bristol will end up applying to us – I hope the rest apply and are awarded places elsewhere – and that about 20% of those who apply will end up studying here. This percentage could be increased. From what I saw today, these are students that will excel if given the opportunity.
  2. Universities (especially History programmes) would benefit from making an extra push to recruit locally. These students wanted to know more about Bristol in the civil war. Many of them seemed quite moved to hear about the city’s plight (it was besieged twice and suffered a severe bout of plague). Imagine what they could achieve if encouraged to go down to their amazing local record office to find out more. And not just the civil wars: slavery, trade and commerce, city government, immigration, civil rights protests, and much else besides – all the answers are stored locally, and these are individuals who will want to go and do the research.
  3. ‘Widening Access’ is not just a higher-ed buzzword. Its about real people whose window of opportunity could be preciously short. We need to proactively get out there and meet them. And tell them, explicitly, that we value and want them.
  4. Teaching history is fun. Seriously fun.

So all in all, a great day. If your institution runs a programme like this, you should definitely consider getting involved. A few hours of your time can really mean something – I certainly hope that I see some of these faces again next year!




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