How Yorkshire’s universities broaden opportunities for all – Michelle Donelan

I HAVE always been grateful that I grew up in the North of England, that I studied here, that I took my degree here, at the University of York to be exact.
Universities are central to the 'levelling up' agenda, writes Michelle Donelan.Universities are central to the 'levelling up' agenda, writes Michelle Donelan.
Universities are central to the 'levelling up' agenda, writes Michelle Donelan.

Without romanticising it unduly, I have always found that people from this part of the world are unfailingly resourceful, industrious and community-spirited. These are qualities that we need more than ever as we fight the Covid-19 pandemic, so it was a real joy for me to see all three in action yesterday, when I paid a virtual visit to Sheffield Hallam University.

My visit was a virtual one but that did not stop me seeing the very best of university outreach work on show. I joined a group session of graduate mentors from the university and pupils from XP School in Doncaster. The graduates were there to give one-to-one support to students and help guide them back into the educational fold if they had been in danger of slipping out of it.

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I have spoken before about how universities can do so much to raise standards and aspirations among young people at an early age.

Michelle Donelan is the Universities Minister. She went to York University.Michelle Donelan is the Universities Minister. She went to York University.
Michelle Donelan is the Universities Minister. She went to York University.

They can sponsor schools, support teachers, run summer camps… there is no limit to the way they can use their position in the community to inspire and motivate. It can make all the difference to enabling young people to break out of a tough start in life.

Attending university offers many young people a chance to make that transformative leap to reaching their goals and aspirations. I was the first in my family to go to university, so I am speaking from the heart here.

The GROW mentoring programme between Sheffield Hallam and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership is just such a project and a shining example of what the government means by ‘‘levelling up’’ – of making sure that everyone gets a chance to fulfil their potential, wherever they are from.

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Levelling up is not just a social platitude, it is an absolute necessity and it is one that I care passionately about. Talent is evenly spread throughout society, but opportunity is not.

One of the reasons I came into politics in the first place was because I wanted to change that. I want to see a fairer society, one where every young person has the chance to rise as high as their abilities or desire will take them.

That ambition is reflected by our Opportunity Area programme, it works within social mobility coldspot areas where too many young people face huge obstacles to getting on in life.

Many of these are in the north, such as Doncaster, Blackpool, Oldham, Bradford and Scarborough, and is why working with the Northern Powerhouse Partnership is so important.

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Universities, further education and apprenticeships are all equally valuable routes to fulfilling and successful careers and each has a vital role to play in our mission to level up. I am delighted that Yorkshire is blessed with fantastic colleges and universities like Sheffield Hallam.

Whatever path a young person chooses, whether that is a degree, or technical qualification or apprenticeship, I want them to be confident that it will open a door to the future they dreamed of, not a dead end.

So a degree has to offer the realistic prospect of a satisfying graduate job, it has to be something that both employers and students can trust. It is not good enough to provide courses that will be a passport to nothing in particular.

The world is reeling from the effects of the pandemic and our economy is going to face enormous challenges as we emerge from it. It will be more important than ever that the qualifications our further and higher education institutions provide are of a high quality and fit for purpose.

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The whole experience of going to university should be one that instils resilience and adaptability to prepare young people for a world that can change in the blink of an eye.

Covid has put all business sectors under phenomenal pressure and unfortunately this will be particularly bruising for higher education. We are determined that our world-class universities should continue to be the jewel in our education crown, which is why the Government has put emergency funding packages in place to ease some of the financial pressures they are experiencing. These include business loans and, as a last resort, financial restructuring.

We need both our further and higher education institutions to collaborate with businesses and with their local communities to make sure that there is a greater synthesis in how they operate. Our students will reap the benefits and so will our country.

Michelle Donelan is a Conservative MP and Minister for Universities.

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Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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Sincerely. Thank you.

James Mitchinson


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