Pledge launch event - Report
On 20 January 2021, universities, regulators, politicians, policy specialists, NGOs and the Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showpeople and Boater (GTRSB) communities came together to launch the Good Practice in supporting GTRSB students into and within Higher Education Pledge in an online event attended by more than 150 people. The event was broadly split into three sections: the first focusing on education policy approaches to widening participation for GTRSB communities; followed by an opportunity to hear about GTRSB community experiences of Higher Education; and ending with presentations on the Pledge’s creation and University sign-ups to date.
The Vice-Chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, Professor Nick Braisby, Chaired and opened the event: welcoming attendees, stressing the Pledge’s importance to the Higher Education sector, and calling on senior leaders in Higher Education to take time to understand the experience of the GTRSB communities, to sign the Pledge, and implement the changes necessary to enable more GTRSB students to flourish.
Baroness Whitaker, Co-Chair for All Parliamentary Party Group (APPG) for GTR and a driving force behind the roundtable where the Pledge concept was first introduced, spoke of feeling honoured to take part in the Launch. She said the Pledge needs to act as a catalyst to create a welcoming environment in universities for the release of talent. Shadow Education Secretary, Kate Green MP, and former Co-Chair of the APPG GTR agreed, and said it was “really important we tackle discrimination and structural barriers that exist throughout the education system” by two means: increasing staff training and raising awareness of the history and culture of GTRSB students; and embedding education of GTRSB culture and history into the curriculum.
Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Higher Education regulator, The Office for Students, and Professor Julia Buckingham, President of universities membership body, Universities UK, both reflected on the opportunities and momentum that the Pledge provides for universities to demonstrate leadership in society and transform the lives of GTRSB community members. Professor David Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia, spoke of how institutions may perpetuate systemic racism, acting as a key barrier to inclusion, something which the Pledge can help to address.
The next section of the event was dedicated to the voices and lived experiences of GTRSB community members who have been to university. Lisa Smith from the Advisory Council for Education of Romany and other Travellers (ACERT) explained how the communities experience stark inequalities and barriers at every stage of education. Lisa stressed that better support in education, and access to higher education is a matter of social justice and that institutions committed to the Pledge can signal a real step-change and improvement for members of the GTRSB communities.
Lisa both spoke about the work of ACERT and their engagement in developing the Pledge and also took part in a panel discussion chaired by Scottish Traveller Professor Colin Clark of the University of West Scotland. Colin Clark spoke of his own academic journey and emphasised that it was the responsibility of everyone participating in in Higher Education (staff, leaders and students) to level the playing field and enhance equalities and inclusion. Irish Traveller and PhD student, Martin Gallagher of Northumbria University, discussed the challenges and barriers he faced at secondary school which ultimately inspired him to return to study in his late 20s, as well as his commitment to ensuring GTRSB history and culture are marked in the educational curriculum. Fellow Irish Traveller, Chelsea McDonagh, the Education Officer for the Traveller Movement, had contrasting experiences to Martin at school, finding teachers welcoming and praising the support she was given which opened up educational opportunities for her. Chelsea praised the Pledge initiative and emphasised the need for universities signing it, to follow up words with actions.
Sherrie Smith of Buckinghamshire New University, spoke about her journey through Higher Education and how this has created a ‘ripple effect’ through her networks and extended family who have in turn become university-goers, noting how this has occurred across different generations with both mature students and young people entering into Higher Education. This has inspired her to push for change in the sector and played a key role in her input to the creation of the Pledge. Dr Aleksandar Marinov, an academic at the University of St Andrews, said he had never come across fellow Roma students or students from a Gypsy or Traveller background whilst studying at university. Dr Marinov said he felt Roma people were an “invisible community” at universities and hopes the Pledge will encourage institutions to include GTRSB history and culture in curricula to increase the visibility of the diverse communities.
One intended speaker (Mike Doherty) of London Itinerant Boaters was unable to participate in the panel as a result of poor connectivity where he was moored up, clearly if unintentionally evidencing the challenges faced by mobile community members without access to reliable and affordable internet access.
Showperson Shelby Holmes, an Oxford University graduate, rounded off the middle section of the event by talking about her upbringing and how her “iron will” to gain an education meant she sometimes had to sneak away from fairground duties to complete her schoolwork. Shelby poignantly asked attendees from a non-GTRSB community to imagine telling their families about wanting to join the circus and fairground industries, as a useful comparison about the barriers that Showpeople can face when they are seeking to leave a traditional family business and way of life to access Higher Education. Shelby concluded by reflecting on conversations she’s had with older Showmen community members in their sixties and seventies, who told her that they would have loved to had the chance to experience Higher Education in the same way as she has.
Sherrie Smith and Professor Margaret Greenfields of Buckinghamshire New University then started the final section of the event by introducing the Pledge and explaining how universities could sign-up to the commitments. Dr Rosa Cisneros of Coventry University (a Roma academic) who has supported the Pledge’s development throughout 2020, then followed Sherrie and Margaret in speaking about the co-production and collaborative development of the Pledge which brought together academics, community members, policy agencies and NGOs to ensure diversity of voices and collaborative agreement over core elements. Dr Cisneros discussed the Pledge’s importance in enabling universities and key policy agencies such at the OfS and HESA to gain more data, and in creating an egalitarian and dialogic space for knowledge production, as well as the attractiveness of “strength in numbers” in garnering more support from both universities and community members in higher education.
Allison Hulmes, British Association for Social Work Cymru, National Director, and co-founder of the Gypsy Roma Traveller Social Work Association, who is a Welsh Romany, was the final presenter. She spoke of her great hope that the Pledge will make a difference to communities and the social work profession which needs to be more alert to, and aware of, the diversities of GRTSB communities and the discrimination they often face. Allison spoke about her family’s personal experiences and how this had inspired her own educational journey.
There was a high level of ‘chat function’ engagement throughout the event, with participants from communities, NGOs, and universities entering into dialogue about comments made by speakers as well as raising issues which they would have liked to discussed in more detail had there been more time.
The event culminated with hearing from representatives of some signatory institutions, and the playing of ‘commitment’ videos from universities who had taken the Pledge prior to the launch event: Hull; Sunderland; Strathclyde; Winchester; and Buckinghamshire New University.
Professor Nick Braisby closed by thanking everyone for their contributions and encouraging other universities to both take the Pledge and for individuals to sign-up to the network of Practice which supports and underpins collaborative sharing of knowledge in relation to best practice in working with GTRSB students in Higher Education.