The road to university is travelled by degrees

1st November 2013 at 00:00

The Government's ambition is a noble one: access to university should be "based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay".

It has even put some money behind this pledge. Higher education remains free for Scots and EU students, and NUS Scotland has called the current student support package "a huge improvement".

But there is a problem. It doesn't matter how good it is for them when they get there if you can't get young people from deprived backgrounds to apply in the first place. A report published last month shows that free tuition does not in itself widen access (see pages 16-18).

For many from well-off backgrounds, the route from school to university via Highers and Advanced Highers is a concept they have been steeped in from birth. Some grow up surrounded by graduation pictures of their family. Any talk of their future is naturally linked to some sort of university degree.

Getting these young people to apply for higher education is not a challenge. Ensuring that they choose courses that are right for them remains difficult, but they already have their sights set on degree-level qualifications.

So what about those who do not naturally consider university and are missing from the Ucas application statistics? Who may be just as talented, but for whom degrees are not part of their vocabulary?

There are two things these young people need. The first is the opportunity to gain and sustain a place at university, and both the government and universities are making headway here.

But the second is much more difficult to instil. It is inspiration and ambition. This can come from a variety of sources. In my own case, the desire to study in the UK was sparked when a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton visited my German secondary school in the equivalent of S1. She sat at the front, knitting and answering our linguistically limited questions about her cat. That was it - I was hooked on the English language.

It's funny what can work.

Traditionally, school careers advisers have been in the business of broadening young people's horizons, providing them with options they may not have considered. But as online resources become a bigger part of careers advice and guidance in school, that role becomes increasingly difficult (see page 8)

Universities are now regularly engaging with prospective applicants at schools, providing information and introducing students from non-traditional backgrounds to higher education as an option (see page 10). Many businesses also work with their local schools and provide careers information and work experience.

But teachers should not forget the essential role they play. They can inspire and open their students' eyes to their true potential on a daily basis. Or, like my English teacher in S1, they can bring inspiring individuals into the classroom and introduce young people to a life they may otherwise never have considered.

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