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How are public perceptions of universities being shaped by campus visits?

  • 6 June 2022
  • By Lucy Haire

On Thursday, 9 June 2022, HEPI will host its Annual Conference in central London. Titled ‘Challenges for the future?’, the day will include the launch of the Advance HE / HEPI 2022 Student Academic Experience SurveyRegister here.

Last bank holiday, I took my 13-year-old son to visit Royal Holloway, University of London, where my nephew is a first-year undergraduate, and loving it. He will be moving out of the Founder’s Building in a few weeks, the accommodation my family affectionately call ‘Hogwarts’. As Royal Holloway’s website states, ‘the Founder’s Building is one of the world’s most spectacular university buildings’, having been opened by Queen Victoria in 1886. What better place to inspire my son to start to think about life beyond school, and to catch up with my nephew over lunch.

According to statistics that HEPI and UPP polling uncovered last year, ‘around one-third of people (34 per cent) have never visited a university’ in the UK and ‘a further 32 per cent of people have not visited a university in the past five years’. I started to wonder what brings people to campuses if they aren’t about to apply to university or aren’t connected to someone who is already studying or working in higher education.

There are plenty of reasons for the general public to visit higher education institutions, many of which go to great lengths to make themselves accessible. My son and I had an inspiring visit to the Grant Museum of Zoology for a half term family day a few years ago, organized by UCL, and went to something similar at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, also curated by UCL. Both these museums are physically situated on campuses and we certainly had a ringside view of the academic communities there as we mingled with curators who were restoring ushabtis right in front of us, while elsewhere some students were sketching other artefacts.   

Whenever I go to the HEPI office in Oxford, I try to squeeze in attendance at Christchurch’s Evensong, sung by world-leading choristers in the stunning setting of an Oxford College partly designed by Sir Christopher Wren, whose chapel is also a cathedral where the public are welcome to visit and worship at no cost. Milton Court in London, the Guildhall School of Music’s relatively new concert hall, lays on several concerts a year that are open to the public. The fact that Milton Court is primarily a resource for the Guildhall’s students and its public concerts relatively infrequent, makes it all the more enticing to get a ticket.

Throughout my childhood in the 1970s and 80s, my extended family and neighbours upped sticks from Yorkshire to stay in Swansea University’s Hendrefoilan student accommodation because we found it the most cost-effective way to visit the beautiful beaches of the Gower in relatively large groups. Now and again, we went to the University swimming pool and the canteen, too, both heavily subsidized. When I was at sixth form, our tutor took us to Huddersfield Polytechnic’s renowned Contemporary Music Festival for cutting edge concerts with Pierre Boulez as well as pulses beamed in from Jodrell Bank to which seven drummers extemporized in a sports hall. These were all good touch points with the incredible facilities of the higher education sector.

Many of the UK’s universities open their doors to the public with specific events like the Cambridge Festival, an interdisciplinary festival including an eclectic mixture of over 350 events and activities covering all aspects of the world-leading research happening at Cambridge University. 

There are also plenty of quite utilitarian yet life-giving reasons why you might go on to various higher education campuses too. My son’s life was saved at University College Hospital when he had a burst appendix a few years ago, and many of my friends gave birth there, some taking advantage of the highly specialized facilities for neonatal care. Last month, I wandered into Queen Mary, University of London’s pop-up COVID vaccination centre and at the same time my neighbour approached UCLH’s Eastman Dental Hospital to deal with his toothache. 

Of course, not everyone has a university or higher education institution nearby, and, in years gone by, far fewer people went to university, two key factors which must surely contribute to the relatively large numbers of people reporting as never having been to a university or higher education institution. As more and more people do become higher education students, more often than not as first in family students, a category explored in some depth in a HEPI report earlier this year, we might assume that the proportion of people who do get on to a campus, if just for an open day or graduation of a family member, will increase. HEPI authors have also explored the potential need for more universities, colleges and campuses to open, especially in higher education cold spots, as the number of 18-year-olds in England grows at an extraordinary rate over the next decade or so, let alone demand from mature and international students. 

There are, of course, numerous school trips to universities, including plenty which target hard-to-reach groups in an effort to widen participation, with excellent charities and higher education outreach teams going to extraordinary lengths to encourage visits, support would-be students and offer a warm welcome. Pupils at my friend’s daughter’s school were recently taken to Goldsmiths by social mobility charity, Debatemate, where pupils were thrilled to be in a formal lecture theatre to test out their skills.  On our recent highly stimulating visit to the University of Cumbria, HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, and I learned about the IT courses that the university is providing on its campus for local people of all ages. 

Finally, a shout out for the outreach of the Open University, which specialises in distance learning rather than campus-based education. Having recently watched three episodes of the BBC’s stunning Green Planet, featuring celebrated naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, I feel as if some of what the Open University has to offer was brought to my living room as Sir David explained the programme’s tie-up with the OU and the University-produced poster that we could order. 

As the debate continues about exactly what proportion of the population should go on to higher education, with some loud and persistent calls for percentages to be reduced in favour of other routes into work, it seems ever more important for universities to open their doors to the widest possible sections of society, at different stages of their lives and in ever-more creative ways. After all, numerous pieces of research show that very large proportions of parents, and mothers in particular, do want their children to go to university at some point. I hope universities can keep up, and even expand on, their openness to the public in general. 

Register here for HEPI’s annual conference on Thursday 9 June 2022.

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