Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A visit to Parliament, and a discussion of higher education access (part 1)

As I described last month, I've been attending a monthly seminar series sponsored by the Higher Education Policy Institute. The seminars are held in Parliament, and each one is hosted by an MP. This month's seminar was on "Fair Access Revisited" and was hosted by Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat representing Oxford.

One of the best parts about the seminar series is that they start at 8:20 in the morning (with tea, of course), so that we're allowed into Parliament before the general public. After going through security, including metal detectors, you can actually wander around the vast building fairly unfettered, as long as you wear your visitor ID.

After going through security, you enter Westminster Hall, originally built by King William II between 1097 and 1099 and the oldest surviving part of Parliament. This is also where visitors queue up to sit in the gallery of the House of Commons and House of Lords during debates.
There's obviously quite a bit of history to take in as you walk around, with plaques noting historical events that had taken place at certain points. Early in the morning the building is almost eerily quiet; when you walk in Westminster Hall by yourself, your footsteps seem to echo all the way up to the ceiling.

The seminar itself takes place in a room on the river side of Parliament, almost across from the London Eye, aka "The Gigundous Ferris Wheel." The seminar room is just to the left in this shot, and it is admittedly easy to get distracted by the vista. I was reminded of London's history of terror attacks, as on a regular basis a member of the London Met (the police force) walked up and down this patio, just outside the windows of our room, with a machine gun in hand. I had thoughts of taking his picture, but decided that would probably not be to his liking so opted to pass on that idea.

The seminar itself was very interesting. England has been putting a lot of emphasis in recent years on broadening participation in higher education (which historically has been below that of the U.S., and other European countries), and in promoting educational equity to students from all social classes.* There were three speakers:
  • Sir Martin Harris, Director of the Office for Fair Access, which "is an independent, non departmental public body which aims to promote and safeguard fair access to higher education for under-represented groups in light of the introduction of variable tuition fees in 2006-07."
  • Malcolm Grant, President of University College London, and Chairman of the Russell Group, a collection of 20 research-intensive and largely elite universities in the UK, including the likes of Oxbridge, LSE, and the University of Edinburgh
  • Michael Driscoll, Vice Chancellor (head) of Middlesex University, a former polytechnic institution that is far down the pecking order from the Russell Group institutions (it is ranked 105 out of 113 institutions in the Times of London League Tables, the British equivalent of the U.S. News & World Report college rankings)

Next: What they had to say

* The Chronicle of Higher Education covered a speech today by John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities, and Skills (the government department responsible for higher education), in which he talked about the government's goal of increasing participation among traditional-aged students to 50%. The equivalent rate in the U.S. is approximately 65%. Here's a link to an article in The Guardian about Denham's speech.


  1. Sounds like fun... I am curious about the discussion surrounding "underrepresented" representation, was this discussion centered around class or racial/ethnic minorities?



  2. I interned in Parliament when I studied in England, and I, too, was in awe of the building every day that I went there! Oh, the history that building holds....

  3. Wil -- the discussions revolve around gaps in participation by social class. "Social class" in British statistical reports is divided into seven groups based on the highest level occupation of the parents in the household. The categories (from highest to lowest) are:
    - Higher managerial and professional occupations
    - Lower managerial and professional occupations
    - Intermediate occupations
    - Small employers and own account workers
    - Lower supervisory and technical occupations
    - Semi-routine occupations
    - Routine occupations
    You can find out more about how they categorize occupations on the UK National Statistics website, http://www.statistics.gov.uk