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Sue Betts


Ms Sue Betts is an educationalist with a career in further and higher education spanning almost fifty years. After working in further education and as education adviser for Edexcel, Sue became a Vice Principal in 1993. In 1999 she joined University for Industry, a government e-learning organisation designed to bring learning to venues such as clubs, pubs, and community sites. In 2004 she was appointed Head of Quality for University for the NHS, another government initiative designed to bring national coherence to NHS training and learning. 

In 2006 Sue was appointed Director of Linking London, hosted by Birkbeck. Linking London is a partnership of over fifty educational institutions collaborating to widen participation, student engagement, success, and social mobility in pursuit of improvements in social justice through education. Sue retired in September 2022, after sixteen years of service. Sue has spent her career working collaboratively in education and believes that learners are best served by coherent, transparent, flexible, relevant and compatible educational systems. A Governor of a local primary school until recently, and currently volunteering for 'Realising Opportunities' working with secondary pupils, Sue has never lost her belief that education can positively change lives.


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Sue Betts to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London. Betts is a distinguished educationalist, who has been incredibly important in supporting, developing, and expanding Birkbeck's educational mission. Her professional interest in organisational cultures and change management have helped make Lifelong Learning a reality for thousands of people and institutions.

Betts was born in Portsmouth but grew up in the scenic market-town of Devizes in Wiltshire, with its magnificent eleventh century castle. She was educated at local schools then at Devizes Grammar School in Wiltshire between 1966 and 1968, where she took A levels in English, History, and French while enjoying the school's Dramatic Society. She had intended to read English at Swansea University, but switched to politics, graduating in 1971. She moved to London to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Education at the University of London's Garnett College, which had been established in 1946 and was the United Kingdom's only dedicated lecturer-training college (as distinct from teacher-training college).

Her career started when she was appointed teaching (mainly history) and then managing a team at City and Islington College in north London, becoming in charge of the visual and performing arts. This was followed by a position as Deputy Head of Department in Somerset before she was appointed at Edexcel (a name signalling a commitment to education and excellence), which is a British multinational education and examination body, the only privately owned examination board in the United Kingdom. This was when she discovered her love for Lifelong Learning. She was tasked with setting up learning hubs in different community centres – such as the Watford Football Club –encouraging people who would not have considered signing up to a university or college to join in future learning. Between 2004 and 2006, she could be found dedicating herself to being a quality manager at National Health Service University (NHSU), tasked with improving the training of NHS staff by developing opportunities for learning, creating high quality learning environments, and leading research into future learning needs. The entire initiative was dissolved in 2005.

This was when Betts joined us here at Birkbeck. She recalls sitting at home wondering what the next phase of her life would bring when her husband – Michael Betts –spotted an advertisement for a Lifelong Learning Network based at Birkbeck. She jumped at it –especially after meeting College Secretary Keith Harrison and Assistant Dean, Equalities, (Professional and Support Staff) Megan Reeves talk to her about it at the interview. She knew she had found her calling, which is why she stayed for sixteen years.

In its early years, it was 3.7 million pound, HEFCE-funded Lifelong Learning Network, one of only 29, and aimed at improving the social mobility and life chances of college vocational learners. This was at the heart of Birkbeck's mission to widen access. And it was particularly important because half of all Higher Education provision in the country is in the capital. It is also important because London desperately needs graduates with level 4 qualifications. Yet, the situation was dire. According to Andreas Schleicher, the Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the OECD, Britain was going down the league tables –stalling at 39 per cent, with nearly one-third of Higher Education starters failing to complete. In terms of the number of school-leavers going to university, England had been overtaken by Slovakia, Ireland, and Portugal.

For Birkbeck, the Network was probably the reason we received Strategic Development funding from HEFCE after the introduction of the ELQ (that is, the "equivalent or lower qualification rule" that excludes students from receiving tuition fee loans or maintenance support if they are doing a degree of equivalent or lower status to one they had already received –which had resulted in a dramatic loss of funding to the College). The project was funded until 2011, by which stage it was so well-established and valuable to its members that it became a subscription-funded network called Linking London, hosted at Birkbeck. Betts was its Executive Director until she retired in July this year. It is composed of universities, colleges, sixth form colleges, and awarding and professional bodies. In total, this amounts to around 21 HEIs and 25 FECs, as well as Unionlearn, Open College Network, and London Councils' Young People Education and Skills (which operates on behalf of the 33 London local authorities). The scale of Bett's task had not been easy. In her early days of Linking London, I am told that she "wandered the corridors of Birkbeck, carrying a copy of the successful Linking London business case submission, all 95 pages, in a carrier bag, looking for a room and a desk to call her own". Alas, Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own" was initially beyond Birkbeck's abilities.

What about the person? At university, she was a member of the Squash team. She is passionate about running, especially around Trent Park and charity runs, although a colleague tells me that she keeps her physiotherapist in a job! She enjoys riding bikes, despite an unfortunate tumble not so long ago when trying to avoid a dog. She is a YMCA fitness adviser at the Tottenham Court Road branch and has been known to travel to New Zealand and Australia just to watch the English rugby union team play. Her musical tastes range from soul and the blues to contemporary music. Recent passions include gardening –and not one to do things "by half" she has taken city and guilds gardening course – and she enjoys drinking Guinness and beach walks in Ireland. Her and her husband Michael have two sons and four grandchildren –the joy of their lives. Speaking to people who knew her at Birkbeck, I was informed time and again that she was "a total pleasure" to work with. She is "collaborative and always ensured staff had a voice in helping to steer the direction of travel." She is an "excellent communicator –able to get on with people from all walks of life, incredibly calm and measured – never once did any staff see her lose her cool. Quite a feat in over 15 years, of on occasion some challenging circumstances!" Others state that she is "inspiring – totally committed to the value of education in improving people's lives and an expert in her field", possessing "a huge wealth of knowledge about the education sector".

Betts' emphasis has always been on transparency and greater flexibility for learners. She promotes the movement of further education students moving into Higher Education and argues that one of the core reasons for the increase progression of students moving seamlessly between the two sectors is the strength of lifelong learning networks. In the first few years since the establishment of lifelong learning networks, there was a more than 50 per cent rise in the number of FE students accepted on to higher education courses. Setting up the Lifelong Learning Network was a novel initiative, requiring extensive planning and execution. It involved her negotiating with Higher Education Institutions and Further Education Colleges. Birkbeck therefore benefitted by being awarded additional funded student numbers.

For these reasons, and so many more, we are thrilled to welcome her as a Fellow of Birkbeck.