Representation of first-generation students is often lacking in the upper echelons of university administrative structures. However, some universities are making serious strides to promote inclusion within their decision-making processes, through student board representation and diverse hiring.
GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead Kira Matthews recently sat down with Colm Harmon, Vice Principal for Students and Professor of Economics at the University of Edinburgh to discuss his international experience in Higher Education (HE), promoting socialisation during the pandemic, and the importance of outreach and mentoring schemes for young people.
I’m Vice Principal for Students and Professor of Economics at the University of Edinburgh. My job intersects, because I’ve worked on the economics of education for a long time and issues around educational choices and economic returns to education.
At Edinburgh, the VP role is part of senior leadership, my remit is unusually broad — how we find students, to when they become alumni. The student journey forms part of that, including the teaching and learning dimensions.
One is my background. I was a first-generation student, I’m from Ireland and both of my parents left school at twelve. In fact, most of the senior leadership team at Edinburgh are also first-gen. That’s where my research interests stem from too. I grew up in a part of Dublin where very few people go into HE. The power of education was very clear to me, and I learned what it could bring me in my own life. Economics was a field that allowed me to think about those questions — why people make choices and what their incentives are.
That inspires me in my day job as VP. Students have different motivations, and the choice to go into HE is a personal one. Fundamentally, it’s about how you value now vs. the future. If you’re from a first-gen background, valuing the present tends to be more common, rather than spending 4 years at university.
We need ways to embrace that diversity and motivation. For example, I introduced a ‘first in family’ club when I was a Head of School, to make it a more welcoming space for our students in that group. It turned out that most of my colleagues were also first-gen. Elites no longer have the preserve over HE.
Most government policy thinks about scholarship money and financing. But I’ve not seen convincing evidence that it’s the only factor. Making it easier financially is really important, but it’s not the issue that makes people choose to stay in education. Changing how people project their lives forward is not something a policymaker can do very easily.
I love our work with school students in parts of Glasgow and Edinburgh who would normally not have a large representation in HE. We build a sense of engagement, I had young people — 7 or 8 years old — telling me about coding, which is amazing! It’s the early stages of what we need to do because they’ll remember the university students at their after-school club that taught them coding and make the connection.
I became VP just before the pandemic, and we quickly established a Sense of Belonging Taskforce. We spent so much time on the logistics of teaching, but I never contemplated the damage that losing focus on the belonging issue would do.
I'm proud of a lot of work around Covid, like managing to set up a Covid test centre in about three weeks, keeping students safe and ensuring they had everything they needed.
The biggest problem we had in the pandemic was with our accommodation: students couldn’t mingle, they had to live in artificial environments, and if you didn’t like your flatmates you couldn’t do much about it. That was the really big issue, and we didn’t really plan for that. All of the moments we had problems were when something to do with belonging got interrupted — we had lots of social plans for Christmas, but then lockdown tightened.
All of our leadership committees have senior and very engaged student representation on them. Even our remuneration committee, which is different to my experiences in Ireland, and Australian institutions.
The biggest single project right now is curriculum transformation. That starts with the premise of what kind of students do we want to create? We can always do more, and our student representatives don’t shy from telling us how they feel. Bringing inclusivity to our major initiatives I hope is a hallmark of what we continue to do.
All the time — because we are looking from another perspective and students know exactly how we can change things to make it easier for them. There are things we don’t think about because we aren’t on the receiving end, so it’s vital to ask these questions and get feedback. There have been times students have told us of small and doable things that change the whole experience which we can easily implement.
Don’t feel you’re an imposter in a very elaborate system. As diversity of leadership grows, so too will the sense of people having to question their belonging — that they’re there for valid reasons.
I’ve been incredibly inspired by various VCs I worked with across the years. Peter Mathieson, Michael Spence, Hugh Brady to name a few. They’ve always given me the latitude to push forward ideas and held me accountable.
My first-year economics textbook. I didn’t know what university was going to be like and I didn’t know what economics was. When I tried my first course at University College Dublin everything changed from there.