Why private HE is better for society

Rona O’Brien explains why private sector HE institutions have the potential to make a difference in encouraging diversity

This month I joined a private sector HE institution, GSM London. Yes, there was the attraction of working in London and a promotion. But it’s the alternative providers who have the potential to make a difference in widening participation and encouraging diversity. In my new role there is simply less ‘baggage’, more flexibility, and the chance to work with a very different student profile and environment. 

The recent CentreForum report recommending universities are assessed in terms of social mobility is just one signal of the way in which HE will need to increasingly think hard about its contribution to creating a more fair and equal society, and how it can demonstrate a return to the country as a whole in return for taxpayer investment.

Growing up in Ireland before the arrival of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ I know what it is like to have limited access to HE and worthwhile career opportunities (I was the first female in my family to go to university), and that such limitations not only restricted the individual, but also the country as a whole, economically, culturally and socially. The culture of universities can still be a real barrier for people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who feel they don’t belong, that they can’t be the same as their peers, in what they have or what they do, and that changes their experience and what they can achieve.

We have an HE system based on the idea of rewarding the ‘best’. There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily. Highest-ranked universities are attractive to the students with the highest A-level grades; they get better results and feed into a higher ranking. Giving access to students from non-traditional backgrounds can be seen as risky and given the importance of rankings for universities, a risk not worth taking. It would be useful to redefine or contextualise what we mean by the best. The best can be defined as students with the highest A-level grades going into the best universities, but it might also be articulated as students doing the best they can; aspiring to be the best, inspiring others in the community.

For many years ‘good’ state schools have been able to point to their role in changing lives and social mobility for the most disadvantaged. But this is not true for HE to the same extent, despite the best efforts of many institutions in terms of WP initiatives. HE continues to be dangled as a reward for school success and not as part of the wider effort to create a more equal and fair society. 

The opening up of HE to alternative providers means a chance for different kinds of provision that better meet the needs of non-traditional students, fit better into local population and community needs and support mature students. That will mean fundamental changes to curricula, assessment, support and a change in culture, one that recognises the value and contribution of non-traditional students while they’re in HE and what they offer afterwards. At GSM London we have the environment to demonstrate what can be done – 85% of students are from ethnic minorities and 30% have children to look after.

Social mobility is not a side issue, but essential to make the future of HE sustainable, whether it’s state or private sector. More diversity of provision can only help the sector as a whole to innovate and question conventional approaches and thinking that are limiting access to HE and careers thereafter.

Rona O’Brien, Dean – Business and Management, GSM London (Greenwich School of Management), www.gsm.org.uk

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