Enabling the bright stars of the next generation to shine
I’m really proud to be CEO of an institution which has founding principles of accessibility, social mobility and inclusivity. We’re implementing a deliberately different approach in everything we do in order to play our part in levelling-up our country, inspiring the next generation and preparing our students for long, fulfilling careers.
It’s a stark fact that even in 2022 there are massive inequalities which still remain across this country. And it's actually a much bigger problem in our region than it is elsewhere in the UK, with young people from poorer households in Greater Manchester increasingly less likely than their more affluent peers to attend university. Looking at this worrying and unfair statistic from another perspective, pupils from more affluent backgrounds are more than twice as likely to go to university than their less well-off neighbours - a figure we aim to change.
According to research published by the Labour Party in November 2021, in some places, just one in every five (21%) pupils eligible for free school meals entered higher education last year, which is well below the national average. Indeed, the gap in university admissions between pupils eligible for free school meals and other students now stands at the same level as it did in 2005.
In my view, this just cannot continue. Young people are much more than a statistic. They need opportunities to flourish. There’s a long way to go to completely turn this picture around and that’s why at UA92 we’re doing everything in our power to evolve the Higher Education narrative by breaking down financial barriers, unlocking access and raising aspirations amongst hard-to-reach young people.
Our degree courses across business, sport, media and digital disciplines are accredited by our co-founders Lancaster University and students benefit from mentors, guest lectures, projects and work experience opportunities, in addition we have created a range of innovative financial student support which goes beyond traditional scholarships and government loans. These practical elements are built into every student experience and remain extremely important to myself and UA92’s other co-founders, the Class of ‘92.
The whole UA92 team is incredibly passionate about inclusivity and accessibility within Higher Education. The disparities that still exist, I believe, need to be addressed by the collective work of regional leaders, national bodies, local communities and private sector companies. At UA92, we continue to work hard to establish connections with all of these stakeholders and will continue to bang the drum for the incredible value that further opening up Higher Education has for all involved.
Local communities are an integral part of redressing inequality across the UK and social mobility is an intrinsic driver too. We also believe that businesses need to take social responsibility for their local communities. At UA92, we are truly putting levelling up in action via our student recruitment approach. We work really closely with schools and community groups to help raise aspirations and ensure everyone in these communities understands how and why Higher Education could and should be the right path for them. This ‘grass-roots’ approach is incredibly effective.
Even with this important work underway, we can’t shy away from the fact that for many young people, affordability unfortunately remains a huge barrier to continuing education. So is getting access and introductions to real-life work experiences and companies which can boost these young people’s potential.
That’s why we’ve developed our Make It For Real package which gives students under 20, who have been eligible for free school meals, a support package worth £5,000; this includes a laptop, unlimited data, lunch every day, travel pass to and from campus and a £150 home voucher. It’s also why partnerships are a fundamental part of the UA92 strategy, offering students a clear route into industry by opening the door to leading businesses; partners include Microsoft, TalkTalk, KPMG and Manchester United. We have lots of other deliberately different initiatives such as this to attract, support and retain students; as well as shaping career-ready graduates who are entrepreneurial and innovative in their approach.
It’s my hope that other Higher Education institutions will adopt similar approaches, as access to opportunities should never be down to postcodes or backgrounds.
Higher Education in the digital era
We were delighted to be awarded a £2m funding grant by Office for Students recently to develop a world leading digital learning academy at our UA92 campus in Old Trafford. Scheduled to open in September 2022, our Digital Academy will deliver enhanced and cutting-edge learning.
The facility will include two specialist studios, a robotics laboratory, mobile learning studios and an immersive video environment. Fully accredited computer science degrees, degree apprenticeships and professional body certified short courses will include Dev Ops, Cloud, Linux, data science, cybersecurity, AR, VR and AI.
This investment couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Manchester actually boasts the largest digital and creative cluster outside of London yet the region is struggling to meet employer needs in the digital skills market because of a significant skills gap. This is extremely worrying and something that I believe the Higher Education sector, alongside digital employers, can address.
It’s increasingly important for students to access Higher Education which equips them with the skills that are sought by employers and digital skills are at the top of the list. Speaking to employers, we know how much they value graduates who enter the workplace with employer-led, industry curriculums such as ours behind them.
Our upcoming Digital Academy, coupled with our knowledge and drive to attract students from all backgrounds, means we are perfectly aligned to driving digital inclusion. Through this work, our aim is to fully equip students from all communities with the digital skills and confidence to succeed in their chosen careers.
Shifting the dial and evolving Higher Education in a way that shapes the future prospects of graduates has to be a priority for our sector as a whole. For me and the team at UA92, it’s an exciting prospect to open up access further. But this can never be achieved in isolation. We have the knowledge, ambition and wherewithal to deliver high-quality courses and experiences which fully prepare graduates. But we also need to ensure that aspirations are effectively raised right across our country; and that barriers can always be overcome. This, and only this, will enable us to continue to enable the bright stars of the next generation to shine.
All of these topics will be discussed by myself and our Director of Disruptive Learning, Aaron Saxton during our session at Ahead by Bett, titled ‘Evolving Higher Education: Levelling Up And Social Mobility In The Digital Era.’
About the author
Sara Prowse is CEO of UA92, a groundbreaking higher education institution co-founded by the Class of ‘92 and Lancaster University.
With a successful 30-year career in fashion and retail across the UK, US and Europe, Sara developed a reputation for strategic brand management and accelerating consumer brands into the digital retail environment. She held senior consumer brand positions at River Island, Debenhams and Shop Direct before becoming MD at Lands End and most recently, CEO at Hotter Shoes, which she left in March 2019.
Following a sabbatical in South America, Sara returned to the UK seeking a new challenge in consultancy and branding. At this time, a new education venture led by Gary Neville and Manchester United’s Class of ‘92, was in development, and was actively seeking a CEO. Sara contemplated the role, and after meeting the founders, was quickly brought into the vision to transform Higher Education.
Based in Old Trafford, Manchester, UA92 is committed to making Higher Education accessible to all no matter the background, through its founding principles of accessibility, social mobility and inclusivity. It offers a portfolio of degree and Higher Education courses across business, sport, media and digital disciplines, accredited by Lancaster University, and prepares students for the world of work by offering industry-led courses through its partnerships with leading industry names.
Ensuring the institution not only paves a new path for education but supports the local community, Sara has implemented a raft of successes at UA92, and has helped develop partnerships with the likes of Microsoft, TalkTalk, KPMG, Trafford Council, Lancashire Cricket Club and Manchester United.