The power of TV, by the minister who owes it all to LA Law

David Lammy explains how universities could sell themselves

By Andy McSmith
Wednesday 18 December 2013 04:39
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Many high-flyers would recall some notable academic success in explaining how they had got to where they are today. Others might cite an inspirational teacher they had at school.

David Lammy, however, is adamant he would not have become Higher Education Minister but for his love of the popular TV drama series, LA Law.

"It was running at the time (when he was considering his future career) – and I was fascinated by it," he said. "I didn't really understand that university was the bridge between all these lawyers."

It spurred him to study law and take a postgraduate course at Harvard before moving into law as a career and then transferring to politics and becoming the MP for Tottenham.

"If it hadn't been for LA Law I doubt if I would be talking to you today," he said.

He is backing an initiative using popular television series as a spur to youngsters from disadvantaged communities to convince them they should consider applying to university. London's South Bank University has led the way by setting up a mock crime scene in the style of one of the current drama imports from the US, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

Youngsters taking GCSEs were invited in from local schools to do a forensic examination of a crime scene during a three-day course, which led to the selection of a suspect and ended with a mock trial. They were told if they wanted to work in law or forensic science – they would need a university degree.

Peter Whent, a former senior homicide investigator who has dealt with more than 20 murders and arranged the mock scene, said: "A number of universities are now running forensic science courses that weren't before. We give them experience of team-building work and what it is like to work on a crime scene. It's very realistic."

Mr Lammy, who was speaking on the eve of the launch of the Government's next "Aimhigher" campaign today (Monday), said that while programmes like Britain's Got Talent helped get "many, many people dreaming of what they could be", it was through using programmes like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation that youngsters could be convinced of the need to go on to higher education to achieve their goals.

However, Aimhigher, which has seen the number of students from disadvantaged neighbourhoods going to university increase since its inception four years ago, is about more that just wooing potential recruits through TV programmes, Mr Lammy said.

"Through working with these young people earlier in the food chain that we can persuade them, possibly before 14 and even at primary school," he said. He believes it is necessary to increase the number of primary schoolchildren who are given experience of higher education through visiting universities.

"Many children in my constituency would never have heard the word 'university' mentioned at that age," he said. "I didn't begin to think about university until I was 15 or 16. I was lucky. I had great teachers... and home support.

Evidence is emerging that ministers may have a battle on their hands to succeed in widening participation among disadvantaged groups. Latest figures show the percentage of youngsters from low-income families to go to university fell last year from 29.8 per cent to 29.5 per cent.

In addition, universities are warning that they may have to turn away thousands of students this September because of an increase in the number of applications, possibly as a result of the recession.

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