Universities take pledge to increase Higher Education access for Gypsies, Travellers, Roma, Showman and Boater communities

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Date: 19th Jan 2021

Collaboration between institutions and GTR community can break down barriers for future generations, says Romany Gypsy former student

A new initiative is encouraging universities and colleges to support Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showman and Boater students into and within higher education in a bid to widen participation and tackle any impact of social exclusion for these communities.

The GTRSB into Higher Education Pledge is a public commitment by higher education institutions to take greater steps in creating a more inclusive and welcoming environment for GTRSB students to enable them to develop academically and personally. Universities will also carry out more outreach and engagement work with local GTRSB communities.

The Pledge is a collaboration between Buckinghamshire New University, the GTRSB community, NGOs (Friends, Families and Travellers; ACERT; and the Traveller Movement), academics, and educational policy specialists who came together at a House of Lords roundtable in September 2019 to hear about the invisibility in the curricula and misrecognition of GTRSB students in higher education.

The Pledge asks institutions to self-report progress against four core commitments: data collection; organisational and institutional culture; outreach; and inclusion, celebration and commemoration. Several universities have signed-up so far, including Winchester, Strathclyde, Sunderland, Hull and Buckinghamshire New University, with a larger number currently in the process of doing so.

The Pledge’s driving forces at Buckinghamshire New University are Professor Margaret Greenfields and researcher Sherrie Smith, a Romany Gypsy whose own journey through higher education has inspired her to push for better engagement with and more participation from the GTRSB communities. Now studying a Master’s in Education at the University, Sherrie wants the Pledge to help break down the barriers for others that she has had to overcome.

“I started university as a single mum of two teenagers, Gypsy woman, aged 39, and was already working. In my first degree, I learned how the system is stacked against the GTRSB community and realised my experiences and voice could make a difference. When I started university five years ago, I barely knew anyone from the community but now there’s dozens more.

“The Pledge gives universities and others the opportunity to make a change, to change social attitudes and create a ripple effect through generations so that there is no stigma attached to a Gypsy or Showman or Traveller going to university, from both within and outside the GTRSB community. The Pledge can build a bridge between universities and open the gates to more students coming forward. A change in mentality for the higher education system will hopefully improve things.”

One of the ways Buckinghamshire New University is already helping GTRSB students is through a bursary, which offers £1,000 each year (pro rata to part-time students) each year, dedicated wellbeing support and a mentor. One of the bursary’s recipients is Charmaine Holmes, a Romany Gypsy who started studying for a degree in social work at the University last summer and who has been able to use the money to purchase her books and laptop.

Charmaine, 45, said she joined university to make a positive difference to her community. “I went to school to tick the box of education rather than seeing it as important. I got married and had my first two children quite young, then as I got older and saw friends progress, I wanted something more and thought I could help my community. There’s still stigma about Gypsies and Travellers from social workers, so I want to change perceptions and improve their outcomes.”

Jackie Bolton, a social worker from the Traveller community, recently helped to establish the new Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Social Work (GRTSW) Association. She supports Charmaine as a mentor and said the Pledge will encourage more people from the GTRSB communities to think about going to university.

“GTRSB students are severely under-represented in higher education which means they can’t influence policy and improve outcomes for our communities or achieve their own potential. I was working in a charity which supported Travellers who were occasionally involved with social care but found social workers lacked enough knowledge about Travellers. I didn’t how to help the Travellers challenge social care to get a better service, so I went to university in my late 40s and qualified myself. I now work in a charity supporting adolescents affected by violence and exploitation. The more Travellers that have a better education, the more they can gradually make change.”

Professor Nick Braisby, Vice Chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, said: “Despite the many successes of universities in tackling inequalities and improving students’ life chances through higher education, the Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Showpeople and Boater communities stand out as continuing to experience truly appalling disadvantage. We’re therefore incredibly proud to be involved in the Pledge movement from the very start and will work together with these communities and other universities to increase numbers and broaden some of the excellent practice already in place.”

The Pledge has been backed by the Office for Students. Chris Millward, Director for Fair Access and Participation at OfS, said: “Gypsy, Traveller, Roma, Show people and Boater students are severely underrepresented in higher education, which is why improving our collective understanding of the cultural and financial barriers faced by this group is so important. A student’s potential to thrive in higher education should never be limited by ethnicity or background.

“With the support of Uni Connect and through their access and participation plans, universities are increasingly making specific interventions to improve equality of opportunity for these students. We welcome the pledge as a commitment for universities to build on this work and to share effective practice.”

There’s still time to secure one of the last places for the launch event on Wednesday 20 January, co-hosted by Baroness Janet Whitaker the Co-Chair of the APPG on GTR and which includes Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green MP.

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