MMU: Restricting Participation?

James Jarvis

I ventured out from behind my theoretical desk (Pulp is still without an office) this week to look into the troubling news of course closures over at the Hollings campus. As far as we can see the courses due to be suspended from 2012 are as follows; Fashion Materials Technology, Trading Standing, Environmental Health and Combined honours in tourism (all full degree courses). Events, Hospitality and Tourism foundation degrees are also suspended from 2012 alongside the Food and Nutrition HND course.

Course closures of any kind are always as unpleasant as they are unwelcome, however most worryingly in this case, many of the course’s being targeted, fall under the remit of widening participation. The HND’s in particular represent a large proportion of MMU’s intake from low socio-economic backgrounds which means that the removal of one (I’ll be surprised if it stays that way) has a disproportionate effect on that demographic of students. A type of student that given the current climate Universities should, in my opinion, be focusing on. Laid out over 1 or 2 year programs the HND’s carry lower entry requirements with an end goal of equipping student with the practical application of their subject to enable rapid and easy transition into the workplace. Because of the nature of the course, it offers higher education to those who would not typically meet the criteria set by universities.

I wanted to find out why MMU would choose to close courses that offer such a brilliant entry point in an era of increasingly wealth dependent higher education?

After emailing some of the staff members connected to the above courses I was quickly passed up the ranks to the Deputy Vice Chair (Student Experience) Kevin Bonnett and set up a meeting to discuss the closures with him. Why I found myself so quickly at that level of staff I’ll leave to your interpretation, Professor Bonnett is the natural source for MMU’s position on such a matter however I would liked to have been able to hear the opinions of those most affected the staff and students.

 The time constraint on this story also made this difficult, any staff or student effected in any way by this or any piece of MMU policy can always contact me (confidentially if required) at editorial.pulp@gmail.com.

That aside Professor Bennett was able to provide me with an insight to the executives stand point on the closures and the reasons behind the decision to cut these courses from the MMU family. One would presume that in the current climate of global crisis that any cuts and closure in an institution would be in the name of austerity, not that Pulp would ever advocate the use of such meaninglessness.

However MMU is sitting pretty at the moment and just about everyone I’ve spoken to about it recently has used the phrase ‘cash rich’ to describe it. ‘The issue here is about entry standards’, ‘it’s about the entry tariffs and it’s about maintaining a high standard, which we think is better for all of our students and graduates’.I can see his point to a degree and indeed it is true that the better reputation the University has, the better it serves its students in later life. However I don’t take the point that entry requirements being low has an especially adverse effect on the reputation of MMU nor do I believe it should. The state and circumstances within which a person arrives at MMU should matter little when compared with their experience while here and what their able to take away from MMU on the conclusion of their course.

I went onto ask Professor Bennett about the level of consultation that went into the decision to close these courses; ‘there wasn’t a consultative process, it was a managerial decision.’ Pura Ariza, MMU’s UCU branch secretary, views this as further confirmation that MMU and the ‘VC is no longer interested in widening participation’.

For those who are unaware of Widening Participation, it is a scheme which aims to increase the numbers of higher education students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those without the educational background that is typical of HE applicants. What it should represent, Pura believes, is recognition of the institutional biases against those from these often interlinked demographics and a credible effort to counteract this.

Clearly then, closures to courses which provide this opportunity are going to directly reduce the amount of students from these backgrounds who have access to the benefits to self and society that come out of Higher Education.

This in turn must surely run in contradiction to any and all aspects of the Widening Participation scheme? Well not if that scheme has changed so that it doesn’t incorporate the intention to provide targeted low entry requirements at all. Instead it would appear that the new Widening Participation strategy passed recently through Academic Board has a different approach, MMU seems to be proposing that it focus’ on helping potential applicants to achieve the more ‘typical’ entry requirements. It’s about ‘helping students achieve the standard for entry’ says Professor Bonnett, although not going into much detail on the actual practicality of such an aim.

It is ridiculous to think that MMU could have enough of an impact on the grades of College students so as to significantly offset the early mentioned institutional biases and increase the numbers of low socio-economic background students. This could represent a sad movement away from greater educational equality towards a more piecemeal approach which would appear to only aim at ticking appropriate boxes while pursuing the unrealistic aim of potentially setting MMU up to compete at ‘Russell’ group level.

While only a few courses are lined up for suspension today, it represents both the ending of a particular chapter of educational provision at Hollings and MMU as well as displaying the most visible aspect of a culture of change growing at MMU. One that perhaps doesn’t take measure of the harm being done to those of us here and now, those for whom represent future education and worst of all those for whom that door has closed, potentially for ever.

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