Civic Service 2004

Compton and Otterbourne Civic Service

Sunday 17 October 2004, 10.30 am
St Matthew’s Church, Otterbourne

Address by Tommy Geddes, Vice Principal, University College Winchester

The great American philosopher and educator Mortimer Adler was the son of an immigrant jewellery salesman. He dropped out of school at 14 but became fascinated by philosophy and went to night classes at Columbia University. Throughout his teaching career in America’s most prestigious universities, Adler remained devoted to helping those who had no formal schooling to return to education. No one, no matter how old, should stop learning, according to Adler. He himself wrote more than twenty books after he turned 70. Spiritually too, Adler, never stopped developing. A self-described pagan for most of his life, Adler became a Christian when he was 83 and converted to Roman Catholicism when he was 96. I say all of this just to give you a context for a quote – part of my text for today:

The purpose of learning, said Adler, is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing for as long as we live.

My thesis is that education is for everybody and for all our lives.

Looking to a source more appropriate for where I speak today, I can cite a text for and against my thesis, as is often the case in the Bible:

Depressingly, Ecclesiastes 1:18 states:

in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

I much prefer Proverbs 20:15:

There is gold, and a multitude of rubies: but the lips of knowledge are a precious jewel.

Lifelong learning is the key theme in today’s world of higher education. The purposes of learning are varied – personal development, citizenship, social improvement, cultural development, economic prosperity of the individual and of society, or simply employment.

In a sense, Winchester – and here I mean the district – is a privileged community in terms of learning and education. Over 30% of the Winchester population is qualified to degree level against a national norm of some 19%. At the same time, the levels of unemployment in the District are very low at less than 1%. Only 78 young people in the whole district are not in employment, education or training.

Thus there is clearly much to celebrate.

Yet there are also concerns. 23% of adults of working age in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight have poor literacy skills and 22% have poor numeracy skills. In Winchester the figure is under 20% but there are some wards where the levels of very low literacy and numeracy are higher than the national average. The generally high educational standards in Winchester district often obscures the fact that there are pockets of deprivation with poor, sometimes very poor, literacy and numeracy levels.

What then are the barriers to learning that sustain these pockets of educational deprivation? Research by the Winchester Community Learning forum has identified three main obstacles – you may know of others:-

Economic reasons are the strongest factor that people cite as preventing them from entering adult education. Basic skills classes tend to be free for all, but many other classes can range from £5 to £10 a session, which over the year add up to a substantial sum for many. Often these courses are free to those on means-tested benefits but they don’t know it. Finding affordable childcare is a problem often cited by providers as a barrier. Only a small minority of classes provide crèche facilities and for many low-income families it is not financially feasible to pay for private childminders.

The second barrier is about time and geography, especially for those living in rural communities. Finding the time to travel by poor public transport makes it very difficult for individuals who have to juggle a range of commitments. Where the courses are provided is as critical as making them available at all. Courses must be provided in a range of venues throughout the district and at a range of times – daytime, evenings, weekends.

Thirdly, there is a psychological barrier to be overcome. Many adults find the prospect of re-entering formal education daunting. Classes that are specifically aimed at improving basic literacy and numeracy may put off potential learners because they feel embarrassed at their lack of such skills. Accessible adult learning provision is critical to combating the lack of self-esteem which prevents individuals from taking positive steps to transform their lives.

I have been talking mostly about lower level skills and training. I will now skip primary, secondary and further education and move to my own world of higher education.

As I mentioned earlier, the name of the game nowadays is lifelong learning and to that I would add widening participation – opening up university education to those whose circumstances would in the past have effectively denied them a place for a variety of reasons:-

  • firstly, because of their gender. This no longer such a key issue as well over half of Higher education students are women. At Winchester, the figure is over 70%.
  • race remains an issue – there are still barriers to those in the Afro-Caribbean community; but not amongst Asians, except for some Asian women where cultural taboos about the role of women are still strong
  • disability has been a huge barrier – you can’t learn if you can’t get in to the library or read the books
  • social and economic deprivation is the most important barrier in the eyes of the government
  • finally, educational deprivation in the immediate community or in the family is a barrier. Worryingly, the most statistically significant determinant of whether a young person goes to university is whether their parents went

The Government’s top priority for higher education is to expand the system so that, by 2010, 50% of the population aged 18-30 will have experienced higher education at some point. Ministers insist that this expansion must and will be achieved by increasing the involvement in higher education of people from groups currently underrepresented, especially people from the lower socio-economic classes 4-7.

There has already been some significant successes. The proportion of students in the UK from socio-economic classes 4-7 has increased from 25% to 28%. At University College Winchester it has gone up from 27% to 28%, a considerable achievement in what is an affluent catchment area.

The proportion of students from state schools across the country has increased since 1997 from 82% to 87%. The proportion for Winchester has increased from 90% to 97%.

The percentage of students from neighbourhoods with very low participation in higher education at University College Winchester has increased from 8 to 11% – a direct result of a widening participation policy that sees us working hard in educationally deprived wards in the county, for example parts of Basingstoke, and amongst faith communities in the inner cities. The latter is a direct result of pressure from Bishop Michael who is one of 9 Diocesan appointments on our Board of Governors.

Age is now less of a barrier than it was. Over 20% of our students are over 21 when they join us. We recently graduated a student aged 84 – I hasten to add that he had not been with us since leaving school!

I should finally mention another category of the population which has been deterred from entering higher education – the disabled. Significantly disabled students have doubled as a proportion of all students in the last three years and now comprise nearly 3%. We are proud at Winchester to have increased our proportion from 2.8% to 4.3% in spite of the fact that the College is built on the side of rather a step hill! We are spending £1 million in adapting our buildings and equipment to allow disabled people to achieve a fulfilling higher education experience. One of my very best memories will always be Peter White, the BBC’s disability correspondent, opening a facility which allows blind people to use voice activated computers to download any data they want from the internet and print it off in Braille. Technology properly applied is a liberating force of monumental proportions for the disabled.

The increase in the proportion of young people who go to university has been dramatic, from around 12% in the 1960s to over 40% today and growing. However, the UK has only just caught up with the rest of the developed world in this respect, in the face of entrenched opposition from those who claim that “more means worse”, whether it is the number of pupils getting A levels or how many go to university. I am sure you will be able to read in your Telegraphs and Mails this Sunday morning the facile argument that what we need is more plumbers rather than more graduates. The same poppycock was pedalled when schooling was made compulsory over a hundred years ago. The argument then was that the country needed children to gather the harvest and work in the mines and mills. Similarly, in the 1960s, the same reactionary argument was put that allowing the working classes to go to university would give them ideas above their station and lead to shortages of manual workers. Just imagine the state that Britain would be in today if it was still only one in ten that went to university. The economic powerhouses of the last 50 years, America Japan and Germany, recognised early that a highly educated workforce was critical to economic success. Britain has only now climbed back up the prosperity ladder to become the world’s 6th biggest economy as the numbers in higher education increased dramatically.

And all this has been achieved with the lowest drop our rates in the western world, having only grown from 14% to 18% as the number of university students has doubled in size since the 1980s. Graduate employability remains extremely high.

Technology and the market will look after the plumbing – we need well educated people to design the technologies of tomorrow, to cure our sick and to bring their entrepreneurial skills to bear on the problems facing society in the 21st century.

And finally, something about University College Winchester itself. What is it and where are we going?

The College has an Anglican foundation – one of some 15 Church Colleges still surviving as independent institutions. Founded in 1840 by the Diocese of Winchester to train teachers for church schools, the College has in fact been providing university degrees across a much wider range of subjects for more than two decades. We now offer over 20 subjects with scores of different degree programmes, from the more traditional such as Archaeology and English to newer highly vocational subjects such as Leisure Management and Performing Arts.

It is in part because of its Anglican Foundation that the College includes in its mission statement the aim, and I quote, “ to serve the social, spiritual, and ethical needs of its members and the wider community”.

As a relatively small college of 5,750 students, 2,500 of whom are part-time, Winchester seeks to provide education on a human scale, within a collegial learning community, based on Christian values. I should clarify, however, that it is in no way a denominational institution. It welcomes staff and students of all faiths and none. These fundamentals, do, however, position us well to enthusiastically meet the life long learning and widening participation agendas.

We have changed our name from King Alfred’s College because that title did not say where we were – Winchester, or what we did – university education. Having previously awarded degrees of the University of Southampton under an accreditation agreement, we have recently been granted the powers to award our own Winchester degrees. If all goes well we will change our name again next year to simply the University of Winchester, dropping the word “college” which makes people mistake us for a college of further education.

We are very much a teaching-led institution. We are not and do not seek to be a leading research university such as Southampton. The lower emphasis on research is why our lecturers have enough time to provide much more teaching to students than they would get at a prestigious research university even if they could get in. That is why we can take students with lower A level attainment yet still turn out graduates after three years who meet the exacting standards of Southampton University.

The quality is generally high. Our Archaeology department, for example, is one of only three in the country to get a maximum possible 24 out of 24 score for academic quality – in the exalted company of Durham and Southampton – I can’t resist saying that Cambridge only got 23!.

Teaching-led we will remain but not teaching-only. We are rated as having national and international excellence in some research areas, including History and Theology and Religious Studies. Our research rankings put us ahead of some 25 established universities. We have nearly 100 PhD students and around 250 studying on Masters courses.

The College’s annual turnover is £25 million, and with the spending power of the students, we inject £40-50 million into the local economy each year. We employ 300 full time and 200 part-time staff. If you include casual academic and other staff, we end up with over 900 people going through our payroll each year

So we have a heritage institution in a heritage city. But we are modern too. A thousand networked computers are at the very heart of our learning environment – every bit as much as our Library. We have over 1000 student bedrooms, every one of them wired for internet access. Over the past ten years we have invested some £40 million in the Winchester campus, opened a new campus at Basingstoke and by 2007 will have competed a new £8 million student centre.

Enough of mammon and enough of me. God is not as evident as he should be around our campus as he is not in society at large. However, we believe he is amongst us in what we do every day – to bring knowledge where there is often ignorance, working in our community, especially amongst the disadvantaged and the deprived, lighting up prejudice and seeking to fashion its destruction. These are lofty ideals but we believe with a passion that they are achievable.

God bless you all and thank you for listening.

© copyright Tommy Geddes 2004 – reproduced by permission