Why access work into HE is so important – a London Higher story.

For this special blog, I asked one of London Higher’s newer staff members to tell her own higher education (HE) story. Our AccessHE division is focused on supporting the widening participation and access into higher education (HE) work. London’s HE institutions are very successful in this – and we are delighted to engage in what is a critical area. So here, in her own words, is a summary of Vanessa’s journey – a reminder of the potential our member HEIs can help to unlock and of the life-changing work AccessHE is involved with.

At the start of July 2017, I officially graduated from UCL with a Master’s degree in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. I had previously completed my undergraduate in History with a European Language, before embarking on my Master’s part-time while working at a ticketing agency. It was a long and hard two years, juggling studying and work, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Exactly one week after handing in my dissertation in September 2016, I began an internship at London Higher and in May of this year moved to AccessHE.

Higher education is something that is very important to me, particularly in terms of access into higher education. Being from an immigrant family with no history of higher education and having lived a fairly typical London immigrant life, in some ways I am of a similar background to the young people that AccessHE work with. My schooling was, I think, typical of the lower socio-economic parts of London: larger than average school, large class sizes, often overwhelmed resources and, generally speaking, lower representation in higher education. My family, also, fairly typical: my parents, due to not finishing secondary education and their early unfamiliarity with English, could also not assist me with my school work in the way that many of the parents of my peers could but were endless in praise and encouragement.

I was able to achieve good GCSEs and A-Levels, and then progressed to UCL for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. This was, obviously, in part due to a lot hard work, some very dedicated teachers and supportive family but also due to initiatives similar to AccessHE which occasionally engaged with my school. From (free) music tuition to the occasional workshop, video conferences with universities to attending a Sutton Trust summer school, all the activities I was able to take part in definitely helped to sustain academic enthusiasm. Had these additional resources, few as they were, not been available I may not have progressed as well as I did.

My graduation was, of course, an enormous source of pride for my parents (and my grandmother who was able to attend her first graduation ceremony at 77). Graduation ceremonies are always sources of pride, but for my family it was not a milestone they had fully expected; before I began my GCSEs they had no concept of my attending university at all, never mind going back for a Master’s. This was not through any lack of ambition but through lack of experience; university was simply not on their radar- they had not attended, no one they knew had attended. Few people they knew had even finished secondary education, family in the UK included.

They have now attended two graduations, two more than they ever thought. Eventually, I hope to go for the hat-trick and embark on a PHD. They probably didn’t expect that when they were on that plane in May 1991 hoping that London would allow their family the chance of a better life.

This story is by no means unique but in many ways represents a typical one for London. Like many others would, I suspect, Vanessa has downplayed the determination and hard work she herself has put into her education! It is fantastic for me to work with young people like Vanessa who add a great deal to an organisation like London Higher. Equally the AccessHE initiative has a key role to play in supporting the access work of our universities and higher education colleges – and we hope in future to embrace progression efforts as well. Long may it all continue.