Beyond widening participation: place-making, regional development, and the challenge of social equality in rural and coastal areas

Author: Professor Mary Stuart, Vice-Chancellor, University of Lincoln, and Bridge Group Fellow

Over the last few years, the country has woken up to the fact that disadvantage varies by geography as well as by social group.  Those of us who live and work in a rural or coastal area have argued this point many times, but it seems policy makers finally understand this challenge. For example, the 2017 report from the Social Mobility Commission found that: ‘The new social mobility cold spots in our country are concentrated in remote rural or coastal areas and in former industrial areas, especially in the Midlands’.

The challenges affecting rural and coastal areas are not only real, but are very long term and require deep engagement and long term solutions. Working in the Midlands, I am very conscious of the particular problems faced by communities accessing resources. It is hard to recruit teachers, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists in our part of the world.  There are fewer higher skilled jobs and transport to the towns and cities is difficult. While housing is cheaper than in big cities, relatively, for the wages earned, it is no easier for people to get onto the property ladder. In my own area of Lincolnshire, full time wages are the 3rd lowest in the country. It has considerably lower levels of graduates: 33% below the national average.  Of course, in this context, it is critical for higher education to work across the education system to raise skill levels and increase the numbers able to progress to higher level learning.

However, widening participation in disadvantaged areas such as Lincolnshire must be more than just supporting students into and through university. We also need to create an environment where our graduates can stay and live well. At my University, just over a third of our students come from the region, and 44% of our graduates are employed in Lincolnshire. The University has sought to be an anchor in the region, creating both high-level employment and potential employees to fill these posts. We work closely with employers to help them innovate, creating new business models and ways of working. We encourage them to take on graduates; some of the companies the University is now working with had never taken on a graduate but now they have graduate training schemes developed in partnership with the University.

As well as economic development to create thriving communities, good health care is also essential.  My area of Lincolnshire faces fundamental health challenges, many of these are related to its highly rural (48% of the population live in rural areas, compared to 18% for England) and coastal (80km along its eastern edge) nature.  Acute care in Lincolnshire faces associated critical challenges with staffing gaps that are routinely filled with expensive temporary agency staff. Like other trusts in the region, it cannot attract and retain the skilled staff base it needs to serve its community. This is why the University, in partnership with the University of Nottingham, bid for a medical school and we have expanded our range of courses for health care professionals.

These are just two examples of how widening participation to achieve social equality is so much more than providing aspirational engagement or attainment raising programmes with Universities. Rather, a wider, deeper, long term engagement in the communities of disadvantaged people is essential to ensure real social change; an approach that focuses on place-making: understanding and supporting the whole community’s needs.