What is a University?

Oxford University Quad

Photo by Delfi de la Rua on Unsplash

In our most recent meeting with the Youth Panel, our academic lead and author of Who are Universities for?,  Professor Tom Sperlinger, led a discussion asking ‘What is a university and who is it for?’.

Tom asked us (5 members of the youth panel, and three of the team) to describe the characteristics of someone who would go to university, and of someone who would not.  We all had very similar pre-conceptions on both what a university is, and who it’s for.

The discussion was fascinating.  The reasons for people going to university tended to be passive, and about continuing a path of education.  It’s something people do if they do well at school and if their family and friends are doing it.   In our discussion, it wasn’t about the opportunities or the passion for a subject, desire for deep learning and new knowledge.

The reasons for not going to university were more varied.  University isn’t for self starters, people who work with their hands, people who will join their family business, nor people who haven’t enjoyed school.

Among our small group, the perception was that university is for people following an education path, and people decide not to go to university because it doesn’t seem relevant to them, they don’t think it will help them achieve their goals in life.

Until Tom prompted us none of us had questioned the structure of University. Why is it 3 years? Why do most of us go away  for university? Why are courses almost all full-time? Why are they for school leavers?

And when you think about it, it’s clear.  Universities were set up for privileged men, to bridge the gap between boarding school and taking their place in the establishment.  Despite the fact that many elements of society have changed; gender balance, the class system, not to mention the requirements of graduates to meet today’s challenges of the climate crisis and social injustice,  the structure of universities have remained (often proudly) as it has been for hundreds of years.

This, got the BMC team thinking about accessibility.  From the start, we’ve been certain that the BMC degree and FE courses should be accessible to anyone who can demonstrate they have the skills, attitude and potential to be a change-maker.  We are not necessarily looking for straight A/ 1 students, we’re looking for people who are passionate about transforming society.

Our discussion highlighted that we need to make sure that BMC is structurally accessible.  How can we appeal to potential change-makers across society.  Can we offer part time options, distance learning, secondments, shorter courses, sponsorship, industrial placements?  These are challenges we’ll be grappling with over the next few months.

We hope that as well as appealing to people who are already thinking of going to university, BMC will appeal to people who do not think university is relevant to them.  BMC is all about activism. It is not a passive continuation of the education journey. Students will look at BMC as a springboard to help them change the way we live.

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