Stuart Bottomley, Deputy Head of Widening Participation: “It’s not about persuading, it’s about opening the door."
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 18 March 2021
Stuart Bottomley, Deputy Head of Widening Participation, talks about his route into higher education, and why Sussex has launched a new Access Programme to encourage young people from non-university backgrounds to consider taking a degree.
I was always good at school but I didn’t know what I wanted to do afterwards. I left at 16 and had a few different jobs. I was a bit directionless and I feel that I didn’t have any guidance. I didn’t think university was unreachable for me, I just didn’t know why I would go.
A lot of my friends had gone to uni and I began to realise I felt I had missed out. It looked like they were having a wonderful time and it really seemed to be enriching their lives. I thought I might like teaching, so I went to a local further education college to take A levels, and eventually went at 26 to study Early Years teaching at Leeds Trinity University.
Although I wanted to go into teaching, I found myself more drawn to the theoretical side of education, and I went to do a Masters in Education Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden for two years. It was expensive living in Sweden, but it was a great experience.
After my Masters, I went travelling for a while, and took a teaching placement in Fiji. When I came back to the UK in 2015, I got a job in children’s social care as a data analyst. But, maybe because I came to education late, I had a yearning to get back into higher education, so I took a job at the University of Reading evaluating course modules.
I began working in widening participation at York St John University in 2017. This wasn’t an aspect of university work that I knew existed. It certainly wasn’t something that was offered to me when I was at school, even though, by any university’s eligibility criteria, I would have fallen into that category. My parents still don’t know much about university. It wasn’t that I wasn’t supported, but they didn’t have the knowledge to guide me on an academic journey. I was the only one among my siblings who had done quite well at exams, so there was a beacon of hope that I would continue down an academic path. I have worked in widening participation ever since this role, having held the position of Evaluation Manager at the University of York, before joining the team at Sussex in January 2021.
It’s not a question of persuading people to go to university, it’s about opening the door for them. For a lot of people, it’s not the right thing to do. But our work is about engaging students who believe it’s not an option for them because they don’t think they are academically able, or they say they can’t afford it, or they just don’t know what it is, or what the benefits are.
All universities are held to targets by the Office for Students to recruit a percentage of students from underrepresented backgrounds such as BAME. Although certain groups – such as white working-class boys – are underrepresented at university, much of the methodology is about working with particular geographical areas and neighbourhoods in which there’s a low representation of young people going to university.
The Sussex Access Programme replaces the First Generation Scholars Programme, but it is still principally about reaching out and providing guidance to students from underrepresented backgrounds. Any student from across the UK can apply for the Sussex Access Programme. All students will have access to our universal offer, which includes Information, Advice & Guidance (IAG) toolkits, online live IAG events, and academic tasters. The Access Plus Programme is for students who meet our more targeted criteria, and they will be able to sign up to additional events, which include academic masterclasses, academic research projects and residential events.
We’re very proud of the work we’re doing to open doors to a university education. It’s been an incredible effort by everyone in the team to continue this great work despite the current challenges of Covid-19. In my own circumstances, I know that finding out that university was right for me after all has given me an enormous sense of achievement. It’s so gratifying to see students widen their horizons and do things that they once believed were out of their reach.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.