Amid the controversy of rising tuition fees, students in Sheffield have been spelling out the real benefits of higher education to individuals and the city. David Bocking reports
THE culmination of Student Week in and around the Winter Garden involved juggling, strawberries and exploding diet cola.
“I need an assistant who can run quickly,” announced Rob Grumby to the somewhat trepidatious crowd watching in Millennium Square, after explaining how certain sweets and fizzy drinks in combination can lead to the formation of tiny carbon dioxide bubbles with explosive results.
Rob was wearing his mad scientist wig, which didn’t appear to reassure his audience.
Eventually, six-year-old Rosa Allen volunteered, and after pulling a string to release the sweets an impressive plume erupted from Rob’s cola bottles, to everyone’s delight.
“That was funny!” said Rosa, as she and her family marched back inside the Winter Garden to try a spot of plate spinning.
Students and staff from both of Sheffield’s universities took part in Student Week in half term to inspire people to learn about science and take part in student-led activities including astronomy, chemistry, chopstick manipulation and belly dancing.
“We want to demonstrate how the universities connect with communities,” said Marie May from Sheffield Hallam University. “It’s not just about juggling or dancing – many people aren’t aware of the hundreds of projects in the city run by students in their own time. There are well over 1,000 students volunteering around Sheffield every year.”
Marie and her counterpart from Sheffield University, Greg Oldfield, pointed out that as well as helping in charities, schools and old people’s homes, students also work in many areas in the city as part of their courses.
The Student Week started last year, partly as a way to redress the sometimes negative image portrayed of students as noisy late night socialites, and is now set to become an annual event.
“Generally we find people are very positive about having two universities in the city,” said Greg. “They think it’s great to have lots of young people here, it makes Sheffield more vibrant and it helps to make the culture of the city.”
Another side of the week is exemplified by Sheffield University’s Dream Bigger Dreams campaign, which is “about inspiring people to go for it whether it’s university or college or applying for that job they’ve always wanted”, said Greg.
Student and science evangelist Michaela Livingstone is on message: “We’re saying you don’t have to accept your lot in life, you can aspire to do bigger or more exciting things.”
Michaela is a molecular biologist and was fired into science after reading a comic book about genetics as a child. She has now helped set up a science education project with fellow Sheffield University students called Science Brainwaves.
On Saturday she and the Brainwaves team were impressing children and adults as they produced globules of real live DNA by squishing a few strawberries and guiding the Sheffield public through a spot of basic filtration and test tubery.
“Science can get a bad rap, and often people don’t understand it, but with something like this, you can say this is science and it is interesting and it tells you a lot about yourself. You can also say as a scientist we do almost the same kind of things to look at DNA and learn stuff from it – I work on cancer for example.”
Michaela recognises the issues for many local people who were unsure about the cost of university even before the changes to tuition fees.
“University education is important, and universities are going to have to put together packages to support low income students. I know in Sheffield they will do their best. But the government cuts are forcing the universities’ hands.”
Marie May points out that the picture is unclear with the ending of Education Maintenance Allowance also likely to influence university uptake.
“Our universities are seen as Sheffield’s universities,” she said. “Half of our students are local, and we’re proud of that as well as having students from 80 different countries too.”
Greg added that Sheffield University was actually started by the Sheffield public over 100 years ago, when all the working people of Sheffield donated a penny to build a ‘university for the people’.
Michaela Livingstone said she grew up in a working class community in Aberdeen ‘with blinkers on’ focused on her dream of becoming a scientist.
“Nothing in life is easy but if you want do something you should be able to do it,” she said. “There are a lot of attitudes that need changing at both ends of the spectrum, but in the end kids need to decide for themselves.
“If someone from a working class background came up to me and said they’ve got no chance of going to university or doing this, I’d say: ‘Hello! I’ve done it, but you’ve got to work hard’.”