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Chris Derbyshire, Widening Participation Partnership Manager, talks about the value of higher education for all
By: Emma Wigmore
Last updated: Monday, 2 November 2020
“All children, regardless of their personal background, should at least be aware of what university is and what potential it might unlock in them.”
My childhood experience of education was not a positive one - I went to loads of schools and didn’t do well academically. When I left full time education, I became an electrician simply because there was plenty of work available in the trade. Mid-life, I was having a difficult time so I reviewed what I was doing and decided to go to university – even though I had no real notion of what a university was.
I'd been on an access course at Birkbeck, University of London, which enabled me to apply to Sussex. I chose to study history. I got a grade D at O Level so it's not like I was any good at it, but they offered me a place for some reason. I'd never even visited the university before and I had a rubbish first year, but it was brilliant after that. I achieved distinctions across the board and I was subsequently awarded a distinction in my masters, before going on to study for a DPhil.
I balanced a part-time job in Widening Participation (WP) alongside my studies. I realised that we have gatekeepers in life, people that open doors for us. Recognising what my gatekeepers had done for me, I wanted to be one too. I dropped my DPhil to take up a managerial role at the University of Chichester, then I returned to Sussex to work in WP in 2009. My area of interest is under-represented people. I guess I want to be a gatekeeper for them. That's what my job is about and I really enjoy it. I earn less money now than I did as an electrician, but I really care about what I do.
I head up the Schools Partnership Unit, which is all about engaging with primary and secondary schools and colleges, but I also work with Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller children, Children in Care, Young Carers, and Service Children. We provide a platform for young people to establish realisable aspirations. Our work is about creating opportunity and communicating the value of higher education so that young people can make informed decisions using honest and open information. We also employ 80 student ambassadors – Sussex students who go out to schools and colleges and talk about their life and university experiences.
All children, regardless of their personal background, should at least be aware of what university is and what potential it might unlock in them. Never mind what they choose to go on and do in life, they should make that choice in the fullness of knowledge rather than some cultural power or stratified system dictating that university is not for them. If you've got the desire and the ability, and the curiosity and the drive to go to university then grasp it.
If I could change one thing, it would be government policy around social mobility. Rather than it being a political football, there should be a consensus about what the term really means. I think everybody should have the right to education. It’s my belief that it benefits the whole of society if people can study and subsequently develop an understanding of themselves in a way that allows them to integrate into society.
On 24 November, we are hosting a Widening Participation conference, which will focus on addressing the challenges in access to higher education faced by the most under-represented groups. The conference is open to all who have an interest in learning more about these groups and how best to support them. We particularly welcome Sussex alumni and look forward to giving them some insight into the work of the Widening Participation team and the sector.
My work has shaped how I read and understand a newspaper, a film, something on the radio, how I interact with other people, and the type of things that I'm interested in. It's been life-changing. I want other people to have the opportunity to be gatekeepers. Even if it’s not me that’s unlocking the door, I want to support and encourage others to do it.