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Money for new hope

Who offers disadvantaged students a second chance? Joe Clancy finds out

Yunus Ali suffered one calamity after another when his marriage broke down.

He found himself cast out by the Muslim community in his home town of Blackburn and he became addicted to the drugs in which he sought solace.

"Among Muslims, divorce is taboo," says Yunus. "I was excluded from my culture. There is no help within the Asian community for people with marriage problems. I ended up on heroin and trying to commit suicide as my world dissolved."

But today the 33-year-old father-of-four will be at a special ceremony at the House of Lords to collect a pound;1,000 bursary from the Helena Kennedy Foundation after having turned his life around.

The former restaurant manager is one of 80 FE students provided with help to go on to higher education by the foundation that is today celebrating its fifth anniversary.

He is now entering his first year at Oxford Brookes University, where he is studying for a BA in sociology. He applied for the bursary while undertaking a foundation course in social administration at Plater College in Oxford.

The Helena Kennedy Foundation that helped to make this possible directly supports the "second-chance" education of people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It issues 12 bursaries a year in its own right, and a number of other "badged" bursaries in conjunction with other organisations.

Trustee Ann Limb, who founded the charity, says: "Despite our efforts, there still remain thousands of learners from the further education sector who want to go on to higher education and who need extra support to help them overcome huge barriers.

"Investing in the intangible, self esteem and self belief, is really what the HKF is about. Without these, our learning and our lives are impoverished."

Dr Limb, chief executive of the University for Industry, set up the charity in 1998 after being inspired by Baroness Kennedy and her report Learning Works. The report identified financial hardship as the main obstruction to remaining in, or returning to, education for adults and young people.

"Consistent evidence shows that the doors to higher education still remain closed to thousands of poor, working class, black, disabled and mature students," says Dr Limb.

Cambridge University student Susi Henry had been forced to abandon her education in Jamaica because of financial difficulties.

She says a foundation award is helping her to achieve her ambition of becoming a barrister. She is in her third year of a law degree at Emmanuel College, following A-levels at Lewisham College.

The question of access is critical, says Dr Limb. "According to January's higher education White Paper, young people from professional backgrounds are more than five times as likely to enter higher education than those from unskilled backgrounds."

To address this, the foundation is about to embark on a second phase of its development. It aims to set up a telephone and web-based information, advice and guidance service for students hoping to progress from further education to university.

Dr Limb explains: "Currently, students seeking funding for higher education outside what is available from the Government are not always aware of what is available and the process can be time-consuming and frustrating.

"It is during the final year of further education, when students must decide whether they can afford to enter higher education, that extra support and guidance is critical."

The foundation has already reached its launch target of pound;250,000 and has set itself a goal of raising pound;500,000 to fund phase two of its work. It relies on donations from organisations, charitable trusts, and private individuals.

The donations have helped to give Yunus Ali a second chance. He left school at 16 with a sprinkling of CSEs, the pre-1986 sub-O-level-standard qualification. He drifted from job to job.

Following an arranged marriage at 20, divorce 12 years later and his subsequent heroin addiction, Yunus finally got clean with the help of Blackburn's Thomas rehabilitation project. It encouraged him to return to education.

"They helped me get into Plater College, which is a fantastic place for mature students who have been left behind educationally. And I am sure my Helena Kennedy award will lead to another door opening for me."

And for others. He continues to stay in close touch with the Thomas project and helps its clients to overcome their addiction. When he finishes his degree he plans to return to Blackburn to set up programmes for other Muslims in distress.

Clearly, the Helena Kennedy Foundation has set itself a great task. "Each year, says Dr Limb, "the foundation receives more than 1,000 enquiries about funding. One hundred applications for bursaries were received in 2003, an indication of the unmet demand which the foundation cannot hope to meet unless substantially more funds are raised."

The fundraising drive is worthwhile. As Susi Henry says: "To me, the award provides evidence that hard work is rewarded; that reaching for the stars pays rich dividends."

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