HLN Meets: Lesley Braiden…
…who’s time spent making sure university could be for everyone, and not just for the rich, earned her the royal seal of approval this year
By Becky Hardy
Lesley Braiden is a bit of a legend in these parts. Not that you’ll probably recognise her name. But for nearly 5,000 graduates from Newcastle University, she’s the reason they’ve even got a degree.
See, the university’s former Academic Registrar has spent her 32-year career dedicated to making higher education more accessible for everyone here in the North East, especially for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As well as countless community activites and schemes, this included her development of the trailblazing PARTNERS initiative – an initiative which helped this very writer earn a place on her degree course, as well as 4,667 other Newcastle University students.
The knock-on effects this has had on their future careers, family lives, social status and ability to contribute back into our local and national community is nothing short of staggering.
But yes, you’ll probably not have heard of Lesley before. Until now. Because we think she’s more than earned some time in the spotlight. And so does Her Majesty, the Queen, come to that. After all, you don’t get included in her New Year’s Honours for nothing, do you…
Congratulations on your MBE! What did receiving that award mean to you?
Thank you! It was a huge surprise and came completely out of the blue.
Being awarded an MBE is a wonderful and very public way to mark the end of my career, (I retired in July 2019). I feel thrilled and delighted, and many other emotions besides, but most importantly I feel humble and greatly moved by the fact that this honour reflects the views of my colleagues who so kindly nominated me. It’s been such a privilege to work at Newcastle University alongside these dedicated and talented colleagues, who have supported me throughout my career, and I owe them immense gratitude.
Tell us a little about the work you’ve done at Newcastle University.
During my time at Newcastle University, I was fortunate to have an extensive and varied range of responsibilities across marketing and communications, student recruitment and admissions, widening participation, the admissions process, regional engagement and continuing education. Most recently as Academic Registrar, I was responsible for making sure all of our students had access to all the support and services they needed before, during and after their studies. The common thread throughout my career was my profound belief in the importance of education.
A big part of your career was focussed on attracting students who, at first, didn’t think higher education was for them. Why was this so important to you?
Education has always been a key issue for me. Even as a teenager, I knew that I wanted to devote my career in some way to education. I felt convinced, through my own experiences, that education leads to opportunities for self-realisation, personal growth and development and is the basis for being able to make a positive contribution to the world.
At the start of my career in the 1980s, I was a teacher of French, German and Mathematics in a comprehensive school in County Durham. I saw first-hand the hidden and undernourished talents of children from less advantaged homes. There were many young people whose circumstances were very challenging, but who nevertheless were keen to learn and grasp opportunities. They somehow had a spark burning brightly, which needed to be nurtured as the way out of poverty or deprivation.
How did that manifest at university level?
When I first worked at Newcastle University, I was struck by the way applicants from some regions and schools were at a disadvantage, and how much harder their teachers had to work to promote their genuine talents. So, when ‘widening participation’ became a government priority in the late ‘90s, it provided a real chance for change and I was keen to grasp the opportunity to try and make a difference.
I think the situation at the time is possibly best summarised in this extract from a report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE):
‘Our research shows that young people from the wealthiest backgrounds are 12 times more likely to enter HE than those from the poorest backgrounds (‘The Influence of Neighbourhood Type on Participation in Higher Education’. HEFCE April 1997).
What impact do you think your work has had on the University?
I think I’ve helped to enrich the student population and, as a result, the wider ethos of the University. Encouraging and nurturing students from diverse and very different backgrounds provides great opportunities for those young people. But even more importantly, it contributes to a greater awareness of diversity and equality; it leads to innovation in teaching, assessment and the delivery of student services and it enriches our understanding of ability, potential, attainment and how we learn.
You developed the PARTNERS Programme – a flagship approach to widening participation which has become nationally acclaimed. How did the idea for PARTNERS first come about?
PARTNERS emerged from discussions in the University in the late 1990s, when the Labour government, led by Tony Blair, set a target of 50% of young people to have the opportunity to participate in Higher Education. There were some key challenges for us to tackle:
- Students from less advantaged backgrounds were more likely to achieve lower grades, which didn’t reflect their genuine ability.
- It was important to raise aspirations: to encourage young people to believe that university was possible for them, and not just something that other people did.
- We needed clear and fair criteria to enable us to identify eligible students.
- We had previously collaborated with Northumbria University on a scheme where undergraduate students worked in local schools encourage young people to think about university. We wanted to build on this.
These were the background ‘drivers’ for PARTNERS. The Government made available some funding, so it seemed to be sensible to try and develop a university-wide scheme which would be available across all subject areas, rather than having a lot of smaller subject-based initiatives.
How did PARTNERS work?
PARTNERS meant that students could still be accepted into the university, despite having achieved slightly lower grades than normally required – provided they also successfully completed an assessed summer school designed to give an indication of their academic potential.
I had great support from the University and the wider public, as it was clear from quite early on that PARTNERS was genuinely supporting the admission of talented and able students from more challenging backgrounds.
To date, PARTNERS has supported the admission of 4,668 students to Newcastle University. What do you think has made the programme so successful?
The fact that widening participation quickly became part of the University’s overall strategy, across all subject areas, was very important. I was also so lucky in having wonderful colleagues who delivered activities on the ground, in academic subject areas and went ‘out and about’ in schools and colleges. There has always been a strong continuity within the PARTNERS scheme and quite a number of the people who are leading PARTNERS now have been involved from the very beginning.
We’ve also taken great care to monitor the progress of PARTNERS students and evidence that the grades they’ve gone on to achieve are comparable to those of other Newcastle students has been an important driver for the scheme’s continued success.
The involvement of our own students – including many former PARTNERS students – as ambassadors, mentors and role models for the next generation has also been vital. Our students have always been our best ambassadors and advocates.
The scheme has been described as ‘pioneering’. Is Newcastle University quite forward-thinking compared to other universities?
The scale of PARTNERS was (and remains) unusual; it involves all subject areas and is available to all eligible students from schools and colleges across the UK. I believe PARTNERS is among the largest and most long-standing of such schemes.
Newcastle University has led the way in a number of related initiatives. But I think it’s important to remember also that universities learn from each other, and widening participation is one area where universities have collaborated with very successful outcomes. Good practice has been shared and spread widely.
During your career, you led a series of collaboration initiatives with local schools, colleges and other HE providers. Can you tell us more about those initiatives?
Over the past 20 years, there has been a deluge of collaborative initiatives to promote widening participation in the region, and I’ve been very actively involved in developing and leading them! I worked mainly to create a coherent approach, which built on existing schemes as part of a framework of activities which would have a real impact. Building the link between schools, FE colleges and universities was a fundamental part of the overall drive to raise attainment, aspirations and skills, and I was proud to be part of that.
You first joined Newcastle University in 1987 – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the region during your career?
Perhaps the most striking change has been the decline of some major heavy industries, and the subsequent burgeoning of SMEs, major international technology companies and the ‘knowledge economy’. These changes have also encouraged the creativity of people in the region.
What do you look back on as one of your greatest professional achievements?
I feel especially proud to have had responsibility for leading such a wide range of university activities during my career. I’ve been able to improve students’ experiences and I feel like I’ve made a real difference to their lives. It’s always been a real privilege to work with our students.
I also feel a great sense of pride in seeing the legacy of my work continued by my colleagues, who are now carrying the flag for current and future generations of students. It gives me great pleasure to see them flourish in their careers, leading further evolution and innovation and contributing to developing the solutions to today’s challenges.
What would be your advice to other women in the region who feel that they can make a positive difference at work?
Believe in yourself, but also nurture and encourage your colleagues. Give them opportunities to make a difference too, and celebrate their success when they do. No-one can be a successful leader without the dedicated support of colleagues all playing their part to the best of their ability. I was extremely fortunate in this regard.
And work hard. Be ambitious, but always seek to ensure that integrity, humanity and compassion are at the core of your personal mission.