It truly has come to something when our country turns to ex-footballers for ideas about how to reinvigorate or in actual fact re-imagine higher education. I don’t say that in any way sneeringly but more often than not, sporting culture is rarely discussed in the same breath as HE. However, that all changes with the announcement of UA92 or University Academy ’92 – the pet project of Gary Neville and other members of Manchester United’s ‘class of ’92’ including Ryan Giggs, his brother Phil, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. This new concept in education sits somewhere between a technical college, a traditional uni and a lifeskills course, and isn’t it about time?
Due to open in September 2019, UA92 will offer students not just the chance to achieve a degree but there will be a focus on wider, enhancement courses that will allow them to develop a suite of skills that are of practicable use in the job market and real world, including financial literacy, coping with pressure and health, both mental and physical.
Under the stewardship of Lancaster University and with the backing of Trafford Council it aims to bridge that most bemoaned of gaps between the haves and the have nots, people who may not otherwise look to go on to higher ed. Social mobility is the clarion cry of the DfE and various lobbyist groups but there remains an elitist snobbery that scares a huge cohort of capable, bright and engaged students who lack the parental support or cultural backing to consider university a real possibility. Perhaps co-opting some of the urban cred afforded football clubs might remove some of the ‘us and them’ thinking that pervades the HE firmament and with Manchester United lending its support along with Lancashire cricket club that is a real possibility.
In a statement, Gary Neville outlined his vision for the project – “There should be no limits to what you can achieve with the right preparation. Our aim is that UA92 graduates would leave with an academic qualification, of course, but also with a range of other skills such as how to deal with pressure, understand finance, leadership and presentational skills, and also how to maintain a healthy body and mind. In other words, the complete package you need to succeed in the workplace.” Which is at the core of everything that education should do and what I’ve been shouting for the last few years. Education in and of itself can be wonderful but we are doing our children a disservice if we don’t give them the tools needed to turn that learning into a career where they can thrive and support themselves. This thinking is what appears to underpin UA92 by putting personal development at the heart of the institute’s ethos.
Who knows how it will pan out, but in the rather careworn and tired looking world of HE – an industry dogged by uncertainty with Brexit hanging over its head and hanging desperately to a traditionalist model that is looking increasingly irrelevant – we can only hope all of our sporting heroes have the gumption to try something new or at the very least applaud their ambition.