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Professor Sir Pete Downes: Widening university access is my biggest success

Professor Sir Pete Downes.
Professor Sir Pete Downes.

The retiring head of Dundee University has said widening access to higher education in the city has been his proudest success.

Professor Sir Pete Downes will stand down as principal and vice-chancellor of Dundee University at the end of the year.

He said he is proudest of Dundee University’s pioneering work to widen access to higher education in a city with some of Scotland’s most deprived areas.

Since 2012 the university has recorded increases in the number of new students coming from these areas. It runs a host of programmes designed to encourage and help people into higher education.

Although the university has been a key driver in projects such as the V&A, Professor Downes, 65, said encouraging more people from deprived backgrounds into university is a key part of its mission.

He said: “If I’m asked what I’m proudest of it’s that we’ve managed to be a top class institution and at the same time be leading in Scotland in terms of the growth the widening participation agenda in this university.

“That’s a costly activity. These people need to be supported: you need to have dedicated mechanisms for identifying people’s potential over and above their abilities to perform in exams.”

Professor Downes said although these students generally perform well academically, many from more disadvantaged backgrounds will need greater support.

He said: “When students are here they actually mostly do pretty well academically given the chance but they’re almost always in far more vulnerable situations.

“That means they have to do more part-time work to stay ahead of the game financially and any small disturbance in what’s going on in their lives can throw them completely off-kilter.”

He said the university has “thrown its intellect” at how best to encourage more people from deprived areas to university and how this can help the city.

“How do we identity people, how do we identify what support we need and how do we encourage people whose background doesn’t lead them to automatically think university hasn’t got anything to do with them?” he said.

“We can’t claim to have a civic mission if we ignore one of the most crucial facts of our city.

“It is one of the most deprived cities in the UK, it has the highest levels of deaths from drug overdose of any city in Scotland.

“We can’t sit back and isolate ourselves, say it’s alright, it’s all beyond the Kingsway so let’s not worry about.”

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