Re-imagining the university

A celebration of Birkbeck’s latest innovation in higher education in London.

FullSizeRender (2)Anish Kapoor’s amazing Orbit here in East London’s Olympic quarter calls to mind previous sculptural structures built on a monumental scale. Together with Gustave Eiffel’s tower in Paris and Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International designed for Petrograd and never built, these structures seem to reach out towards a better future, willing it into being and propelling us into a new world. In keeping with the age, Anish Kapoor’s Orbit suggests a future which is more uncertain, more challenging, more complex and, of course, more exciting than any of these other futures. Walking onto the site, we passed underneath the opening of a colossal funnel which seemed ready to suck us up and literally propel us into orbit.

I think this is what we are doing in education, we want to propel people into the future, to prepare them for that complex, exciting and wonderful unknown which beckons and to give them some of the tools they will need to navigate with on the journey. Education is about helping people to re-imagine themselves and to re-imagine their world.

Newham sixth form college, NewVIc, just a few miles down the road, is London’s largest sixth form college. Our students are full of ambition and talent, most aspire to go on to university and most do; our progression rate is higher than average. In fact more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds progress to university from NewVIc than from any other further education or sixth form provider in the country. We have also increased the number getting in to the most selective universities. Our A-level results are improving more rapidly than nationally and our vocational results are already well above the national average.

Even in these times where austerity and pessimism seem to prevail, when I see the energy, the personal and social commitment of our students I feel nothing but optimism about our shared future. We are very proud of our students’ achievements and Birkbeck has played its part in this success. The number of NewVIc students progressing to Birkbeck has doubled…from 1 to 2. We are, of course, aiming for even more spectacular increases in future.

I have to disagree when people, usually politicians, make a distinction between ‘wealth creators’ on the one hand and public services which are presumably just ‘wealth spenders’ on the other. They usually also tell us that we have to wait for the wealth to be created before we can have adequate resources allocated to public services. But surely, we are wealth creators too. We are investing in the greatest resource there is; human beings. Our schools, colleges and universities are powerful engines of wealth creation – particularly in a place like East London.

So what does it mean to re-invent the university? I think today’s university has to go beyond running courses or doing research. We need universities to continue being powerhouses of intellectual, cultural, social and economic life; locally and globally. Universities are places where knowledge is created, ideas debated and perspectives shared. They should face outwards and seek to involve everyone in the task of re-imagining themselves and their world.

Birkbeck has a tremendous record of doing precisely this. Finding new ways to reach people and involve them, marrying widening participation with academic and research excellence. Birkbeck shows us what it might mean to go beyond a target of 50% participation in higher education. It seems to me that it symbolises the goal of 100% participation; whether on-line, full-time, day or evening, undergraduate or postgraduate.

So I commend the brilliant 3 year evening degrees which Birkbeck offers and I am confident that we will see an increasing number of young people opting for this mode of attendance and I look forward to continuing to work closely with Birkbeck to help propel more and more of our ambitious young people into a better future.

Adapted from a speech at the AcelorMittal Orbit in Stratford, East London on 12th February 2015.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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