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Obituary: Professor Harriet Jones

  • 26 July 2022
  • By Mary Curnock Cook

This blog is kindly provided by Mary Curnock Cook CBE. You can find Mary on Twitter @MaryCurnockCook.

I was so sorry to hear that Professor Harriet Jones – Harry to friends and family – died at the end of May after a long illness with breast cancer, aged just 55. Harriet was a huge inspiration to me in my early days as chief executive of UCAS.

Harriet was a professor in the School of Biology at the University of East Anglia and a respected researcherand activist in preparing students for university studies. It was in that latter role that I first met her in 2010 while she was delivering a talk to sixth form teachers. I was probably also speaking at the same event. She offered advice about writing skills and how sixth form teachers could help prepare their students for the demands of effective academic writing when they hit the campus tarmac. Speaking to her afterwards, she told me she just wished they’d arrive at university ‘knowing how to do fractions and percentages’.

Her framing of the university experience as a scholarly community where students and academics both share and create knowledge resonated strongly with me. I was reminded of this anew as chair of the UPP Foundation Student Futures Commission. Our recommendation for universities to set out a Student Futures Manifesto, co-created between universities’ leadership teams and their students, was, in essence, a call to refresh the idea of a joint scholarly community. This is what we heard that students craved after years of a more utilitarian and transactional model, perhaps creeping into the system in the wake of the 2012 funding changes and the marketisation of universities following the removal of student number controls. 

Despite her private frustrations at school leavers’ lack of skills for higher level learning, she did more than just complain. She went on to develop a ‘Prep4Uni’ course with a version both for aspiring students and their teachers. She and I corresponded regularly about how to get such a course funded as it was difficult to scale through fee-paying delegates. When she couldn’t crack this nut, she developed it as a free ‘Preparing for University’ MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) programme on Future Learn. Topics covered included:

  • questioning in a university environment;
  • links between independent study, revision and reading skills;
  • using and acknowledging the work of others through referencing;
  • data and its applicability to university study;
  • textual analysis and how literary texts are studied; and
  • structuring thoughts and ideas and its importance at university level.

I left school at 16 and having skipped straight to a Master’s degree in my 40s, my role at UCAS laid bare the fact that I didn’t know enough about undergraduate studies and life at university. When I decided I needed to attend some lectures to see for myself, Harriet kindly arranged a day for me at UEA.

First up, I attended one of her Biology lectures. It was in a large laboratory, capable of teaching up to 100 students at once. Harriet, who was of tiny frame, donned some fetching 

Beyoncé-style headphones and quickly called her large class in order. She demonstrated experiments which were broadcast on big screens around the lab, she set out the task, and then rushed around the lab answering questions and helping students who were stuck. It was a tour de force. There was a bug store of some kind where students could collect specimens to study: I was riveted. I remember one student following her around with a matchbox in which he’d captured a specimen he’d found in his student accommodation. Best not to ask what it was, I decided.

Next, she brought together a group of first year students who told me about how they’d chosen their courses and university preferences, and how they’d found the experience of using the UCAS platform. The insights I gained were invaluable. 

Soon I was sitting in a seminar where students were discussing a recent lecture. The tutor was asking students to compare the Song of Solomon with Amy Winehouse lyrics – they were transfixed, as was I. Asked what they were listening to on their iPods, one young woman shyly confessed that she listened to poetry, before brightening as she realised she ‘didn’t need to feel embarrassed about this any more because everyone is here because they love poetry’. 

That was the day I really fell in love with higher education, and I thank Harriet for it. Despite the 15 years that have since passed, I remember it in vivid detail. I used anecdotes from that visit in many speeches throughout my time at UCAS, hoping to inspire students just as I had been inspired myself.  

Harriet and I stayed in touch over the years. She remained passionate about the student experience and effective preparation for starting higher education even as her health deteriorated. My Twitter DMs still tell the story of her interest in topics such as predicted grades and post-qualification admissions, mathematics education and student mental health and wellbeing. In 2019, she was awarded a National Teaching Fellowshipby AdvanceHE. She bore her terminal diagnosis when it came with grace and fortitude. 

I have no doubt that Harriet was a respected scientist and academic. And an obituary notice in the Norwich Evening News reminds us that she was also a beloved wife and a mother of three grown-up children. But for me she was a pioneer in understanding the liminal space between education at school and higher education, and my gratitude to her for her patient help as I found my feet at UCAS is immense. RIP Harriet and thank you.

Image used by kind permission of the University of East Anglia.

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