The Institute for Fiscal Studies report which I blogged about a couple of weeks ago caused something of a stir. It looked at the connection between university degrees and subsequent earnings, using HMRC data to track individuals over time. At the core of the report is a simple challenge which characterises higher education systems across the world: they simultaneously entrench privilege (about 60% of the variance in earnings is attributable to parental income), as the advantages of university education are passed from parent to child, and at the same time they provide vehicles for social mobility (about 40% of the variance in earnings is associated with institution and subject studied). Much of the policy language focuses on the latter – on the part universities play in creating opportunity and building a more open, fairer society.
Sheffield Hallam has an outstanding track record in extending opportunity. The data bears this out: 18.4% of our new undergraduates in 2014/15 were drawn from low participation neighbourhoods; 40.8% from socio-economic classes 4-7; 38.3% from families with household incomes of less than £25,000; and 52.7% from families with household incomes of less than £42,000. The 2016 Social Market Foundation Widening Participation report showed that Sheffield Hallam is making a greater contribution than the sector overall to meeting the Government’s social mobility goal to double the rate of participation in higher education for young students from disadvantaged backgrounds. We were one of ten universities who collectively accounted for a third of the total increase in disadvantaged entrants across the sector in 2014/15. Our experience and track record in providing routes to higher education for care leavers is amongst the very best in the country, and we have an exceptional track record in supporting student carers. This was one of the things which attracted me to the University – a University not just talking about its contribution to creating opportunity for young people from poorer backgrounds, but genuinely committed to action. Last week, I signed off the University’s 2017-2018 access agreement to the Office for Fair Access. It is very rare that you read a formal submission to Government which is inspirational, but this one was, and I was proud to be leading a University which has this track record.
But as the funding landscape changes, as Government increasingly withdraws direct public funding for supporting higher education, the challenges increase. It’s not simply a question of widening participation in higher education – important though that is, it is meaningless without following it up with the environment which enables those students who face multiple challenges to succeed. And also, last week, James Johnston, Sheffield Hallam’s head of development and alumni relations, drew together colleagues from across the University to do some hard thinking about our development campaign and its fund-raising priorities. There’s a good deal of work to be done to shape the case for support for the full range of the University’s fund-raising, but the very disparate group from right across the organisation agreed that our commitment to, expertise in and potential for providing access to higher education for young people in need would be a major priority.
Developing our case for philanthropic support in this, and other areas, will be one of the University’s challenges over the next few months: telling the story in ways which are compelling. Our fundraising consultants cited an important quotation from an experienced American fundraiser – people give money to universities which meet needs, and not to universities which have needs. But there are important steps we can take. At the end of this month, the University will launch its first systematic approach to alumni fund raising, with an integrated telephone and mail campaign for the Hallam Fund. The Hallam Fund provides support for the student and academic community at Sheffield Hallam University. It does this by assisting students from under-represented or disadvantaged backgrounds who face significant barriers to succeeding at university, ensuring students can develop career and life skills through placements, internships and mentoring opportunities, and providing funding for applied research teams developing projects which could have a life-changing impact on individuals and society. Working together to understand how we all contribute to the wider impact of this through our teaching, student support and research work will help us build an incredibly powerful narrative. It’s one of the things we need to get right if we are going to be able to extend our influence for good in and beyond Sheffield.