On course for a revolution
David Clensy talks to the two Bristol University academics who are creating a revolutionary new course aimed at encouraging more higher education opportunities for Bristol residents, especially those with no formal qualifications
IT was the play – and later the film – that changed the way we all think about university life. Educating Rita – Willy Russell's tale of a working class woman whose horizons are broadened by experiencing academia caught and distilled a moment of social shift that emerged in post-war Britain.
By deftly highlighting the clash between an emerging working class keen to have their chance at furthering their education, with the established middle class world of the red brick institutions, Russell not only reflected the world around him, but like the greatest artists, helped to shape the world to come.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a university education became more accessible than ever to an increasingly broad range of society.
But two academics at Bristol University believe there are still plenty of people, especially those from backgrounds of more gruelling social deprivation, for whom university isn't even a distant dream.
"Universities have done a lot over the years when it comes to broadening their intake, in terms of taking students from a range of school and college backgrounds," says Tom Sperlinger, senior teaching fellow in Bristol University's English department.
"But then there are those with no formal qualifications at all – historically universities have not done enough to engage with those who are no longer in the education system. Many of these people simply believe that higher education simply isn't something they will ever have access to."
Which is why Tom, together with Richard Pettigrew, a reader in philosophy, is currently working to formulate a new kind of course at the university.
The arts and humanities foundation course will specifically target locals – people already living in the city, possibly from the more troubled end of the social scale, who perhaps feel that academia is not for them.
"Preference will be given to locals, partly because we want to improve the university's performance in that field, but also because we want the course to be accessible to people who perhaps are not financially able to give up their previous life immediately.
"There is generally a shift towards students not going away from their home city for their university education – simply because the introduction of tuition fees has made the process more expensive.
"But the people we expect to come on to the foundation course, will be studying for a couple of days a week for the first year, so they will be able to continue working part time.
"We also hope tuition fees for the foundation year will be considerably less than the £9,000 annual degree course fee – more like £3,500. Additionally, we hope to be able to set up some sort of bursary for living expenses, probably also around £3,000."
Richard adds: "As there are no minimum qualifications required to join the course, we hope we will be able to attract people who through life circumstances found themselves leaving the education system early, and who thought they would never have the opportunity to get back into education.
"The foundation year will give them a broad background in the academic study of arts and humanities, as well as educating them on basic academic practices –from essay writing to using the university library.
"But after the foundation year, we will guarantee them all a place on one of the university's humanities degree courses. We hope that over the course of the year, by listening to lectures from experts from each of the different arts and humanities departments, they will have been able to decide the field of study that most interests them.
"While this sort of approach is relatively common in the fields of science and engineering, it is a new idea for arts subjects. But our data suggests that even in the current economic climate, students graduating with arts degrees have some good opportunities ahead of them.
"Contrary to the popular notion, our surveys suggest that employers are still keen on employing people with arts, humanities and English degrees."
Full details of the course will be launched early next year, followed by a series of taster courses, which will be run at Knowle West Media Centre and the Single Parent Action Network in Easton.
"The difficulty for us in the first instance is connecting with people who are not actively trying to connect with the university," Tom says. "It's of limited use to put details on our website, because the people we're aiming to find won't be scanning the university website. We need to go out and find them and introduce them to the idea."
There will be a June 3 deadline for applications for the foundation course, which will start next September, allowing participants the opportunity to start their degree course in September 2014.
To register an interest in the course, email firstname.lastname@example.org