Going back to the school I'd left some 40 years ago to talk to pupils about their hopes and aspirations was an eye-opener. Burnt Mill Comprehensive was built to educate the children of the post-war migration from London's East End to Harlow New Town. Attracted by preferential business rates (and modern housing), craftspeople and entrepreneurs like my cabinet-maker father grew successful manufacturing businesses on which the town prospered. He was canny enough to provide me with dull holiday work; the monotony of the production line more than anything shaped my determination to obtain the qualifications that would open the door to a fulfilling career. I was lucky enough to attend a school where it was assumed from the moment you set foot in it that if you had the ability, you were going to university.
Burnt Mill no longer has a sixth form and has clearly been through mixed fortunes; it sits, after all, in the country's fifth most deprived area.* Quite recently, only one GCSE pupil was studying history, and the boom years have scarcely impacted on the fabric of the school. Little had changed in four decades; the same buildings, laboratories and common rooms, although computers are everywhere (and there's a much better drum kit in the music room); a playing field stood waist-high in weeds apparently because the cash for astro-turf had failed to materialise.
Such lack of capital investment contrasted sharply with the inspirational energy of the school's new head, Helena Mills, and the enthusiasm of her pupils. A historian herself, she's taking the school in a new direction; over 60 boys and girls are now studying history, and there's huge focus on realising potential and on everyone aiming as high as possible. The pupils I met were deeply interested in all aspects of university life and the opportunity it offers. Having done routine holiday jobs themselves, they related easily to my experience (and were entertained by the notion of professors working in factories).
While they largely hadn't appreciated the scale of the cuts visited on universities, and why therefore fees were going up by so much, they had an incredibly mature understanding of the financial arrangements and were well prepared to make the necessary commitment. Their parents were certainly worried about debt figures dominating the headlines, but only three pupils (from a group of 20 or so) were concerned about the potential cost of university education. I'll be delighted to welcome some of these aspirational youngsters to our campus in due course.
Meanwhile further welcome evidence of the opportunities available to our graduates came with a substantial 7%-point increase in the annual 'destinations' survey. The commitment of our careers staff to students is fantastic, and I'm convinced our destinations figure would be even better if more students took their advice. This is their busiest year yet with 7,000 student visitors - which means another 23,000 are not as concerned about the future as they might be!
The White Paper brought few surprises and one bad idea, of which more shortly. It doesn't change our thinking or the course we have set ourselves; our financial plans and student numbers will accommodate the relatively modest changes proposed; we factored in a potential 5% decrease in student numbers and many schools were aiming in any event to improve their staff-student ratios by cutting student numbers as well as making appointments.
The economies exercise prepared us for the new landscape by removing unnecessary costs and improving efficiency. As a result, we now have two substantial tranches of funding available to ease us into the new system. We have earmarked an additional £12m from tuition fee income for schools to improve the student experience, predominantly on academic staff but other ideas include funding field trips, placements and new student facilities. The student union is also involved in these discussions.
We've also added £9m to our annual strategic pot ('the strategic support and development fund') to help schools with the transition into the new system and deal with fluctuations in recruitment, for example, or reshaping courses or more support for PhD students. Proposals for appointing up to 50 new academic leadership posts are being worked on by deans and others.
The sting in the tail of the White Paper - taking 20,000 places out of the system and redistributing them in the main (almost certainly) to private and further education providers who charge less than £7,500 a year - will do nothing for those year elevens at Burnt Mill who want to come to universities like ours.
In the short term, it will mean fewer places at Leeds - around 300 in 2012 - for those who do not achieve AAB at A level, and that has a disproportionate effect on the university chances of low income and disadvantaged applicants. The numbers will even out over time but I fear the immediate, perverse, effect (as we warned politicians) will be to limit rather than widen participation.
This clunky attempt to stir market behaviour into the university system will one day be revealed for the side-show it is, as if the new fees hadn't already done enough to incentivise universities into doing their best for teaching, learning and the student experience.
For now, the University of Leeds is more than ready for the changes ahead; we have created headroom for academic investment and our finances are sound. We are clear that our students are our partners, rather than consumers, and what that relationship requires of staff and students. Above all, and whatever the pressures created by the new funding arrangements, we understand there can be no compromise on our academic standards and professionalism.
Have a great summer.
* According to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index, a government analysis of the proportion of children under 16 living in low income households.
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