Post-92s need ‘social mobility premium’, says University of Wolverhampton Vice-Chancellor
Ebrahim Adia’s journey through modern universities indicates their power to transform lives, but they face growing financial pressure
Given almost four in five undergraduates at the University of Wolverhampton are “first-in-family” students, it is no surprise that its vice-chancellor, Ebrahim Adia, speaks persuasively about how post-92 institutions can transform lives.
His case for how these providers lift aspirations and drive social mobility does not just rest on the 20,000 or so students attending his university. There are few more striking examples of the power of modern institutions to change individual fortunes as Professor Adia’s own life, which includes a university education and a career spent entirely within this part of the sector.
Born in Bolton in the late 1960s, where his parents – who had arrived in England from Burma and India earlier that decade – worked in the city’s textile mills, the 53-year-old recalled how his early years were difficult.
“On the first day of primary school, we were all given a ‘Peter and Jane’ book to read, and the majority of children started reading or making out the words. Even though I was born in the UK, my parents spoke only Gujarati at home, so I could not understand English or read the text,” Professor Adia told Times Higher Education.
To get up to speed, he joined top-up classes provided by the local authority, even though these were mainly focused on children with additional needs. But schooling remained “challenging”, he recalled.
“Our teachers tried hard, but I went to an inner-city secondary school in the 1980s, which was a difficult time economically and socially in the north-west of England, which lost many traditional textile and manufacturing industries. My father was unemployed for the whole of the 1980s,” said Professor Adia.
The threat of racist violence was also ever-present, he added. “The National Front had a presence in our area, and this really limited how far you could go geographically – moving 300 metres beyond our own home heightened the risk of being subjected to physical violence.”
He was encouraged to study politics by his sixth-form tutors, who recommended Leicester Polytechnic, soon to become De Montfort University. “I wasn’t aware of the idea of open days and turned up at DMU on the welcome day and started my degree,” he said.
For Professor Adia, DMU was “a liberating experience”. “I came across people from different economic backgrounds and cultures, and the course was intellectually challenging,” he said.
“I decided I wanted to spend my career in higher education at that point.” Professor Adia took a PhD before joining the University of Central Lancashire as a lecturer in education, remaining there for 18 years. He moved into academic management in 2015 at the University of Bolton, where he was assistant vice-chancellor for student experience, before being appointed provost for Uclan’s Burnley campus and then pro vice-chancellor (academic leadership).
All of these institutions were “quite distinctive in the diversity of their students”, said Professor Adia. “Fundamentally, they are engaged in upskilling local populations, economic support for their regions and developing the social capital of students.”
At Uclan, where he oversaw its academic portfolio before taking over at Wolverhampton in October, recent growth in student numbers – including scaling its international student body – was linked to its diversification of courses, turning it into a “university of significant scale”. “You have to put all these things together if a university is going to be attractive in an exceptionally competitive higher education market,” he said.
But it is, however, becoming increasingly hard for post-92 universities to serve their core market – domestic students and, in particular, those from deprived local communities – given the continued tuition fee freeze, said Professor Adia.
“I can’t think of many sectors where prices have been fixed for the best part of a decade. And when prices are fixed, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep up with student expectations,” he explained.
Wolverhampton, which recorded deficits in the past two academic years, was now “on course for a surplus this year”, said Professor Adia. However, funding arrangements in England should be reviewed to take account of additional costs that post-92 universities incurred when educating more diverse student bodies, he said.
“It appears that a review of university funding is not high on the political agenda for whoever wins the next general election and, in the interim, there may be other ways to help universities look at the financial challenge,” said Professor Adia, who advocates for a “social mobility premium” paid to institutions that create opportunities for communities that do not traditionally enter higher education.
“We can be quite creative in how it works – this isn’t just about delivering access, and payments could be triggered at the point of completion or different stages of the student journey,” he said.
Without that kind of investment, Professor Adia warned, modern universities’ potential to help students like himself would not be properly realised.
This article first appeared in Times Higher Education
February 6, 2024