Ways to put the ardour in an arduous climb to university

25th February 2011 at 00:00
As funding cuts bite deeper, university fees rocket and the prospects for paying off debt look tougher, colleges are finding imaginative ways to help poorer students believe higher education is worth the effort

At Blackpool Sixth Form College in January, a record nine students opened letters revealing that they had been offered places at Oxford or Cambridge. It was not a bad result for a college surrounded by some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in Britain, and where nearly 80 per cent of students come from families who have no experience of higher education.

Principal Felicity Greeves said the college has subject-specific programmes for gifted and talented students, mentors appropriate to their chosen career and talks from successful former students. But it has also relied on the help of Aimhigher to allow students like Amy Dutton, 18, to visit their chosen university, make contacts and grow in confidence.

Amy, who has an offer to study English at Mansfield College, said: "It became real then, when you had the chance to look around, to speak to some of the students. I didn't realise how many students came from backgrounds like mine."

Aimhigher's pound;78 million funding is being cancelled in July, with the government putting the burden on universities to attract underprivileged students and earn the right to charge the rest fees of up to pound;9,000 a year.

But colleges are not prepared to relinquish their role in widening their charges' participation in higher education (HE), and many are looking for new ways to encourage students to progress to higher education.

Jonathan Higgins, director of Aimhigher in West Yorkshire, is meeting Simon Hughes, the Government's advocate for access to education, to highlight the issues next month. Mr Higgins said there is a gap in the support available to students due to move into higher education in 2012 - the first group that will have to understand the complex new regime.

But he pointed out that college staff who worked as Aimhigher co- ordinators will have established links with universities, which they can use to help continue the work which over the last five years has seen the growth in student numbers from the poorest 40 per cent of families outstrip the rest.

He said their biggest task was to work on students' confidence by exposing them to a university environment. "We often hear from students that it's a confidence thing. It's not just a question of saying that they're good enough: it's a question of bringing them into universities and showing them that, yes, it is for people like them," he said.

Parents' concerns are different, he said: they want reassurance over things like the cost, and employability after graduation.

Students from less well-off families also needed the professional contacts which others take for granted, Mr Higgins said, so mentors from their chosen career can make all the difference. "Often you need that extra social capital that a lot of poorer students don't have: they don't have the sort of network that a lot of more privileged kids do," he said.

Mentors are a key feature at Tower Hamlets College in east London. While more than half the teenagers in the area come from families on benefits, the college boasts 79 per cent of students getting into their choice of university last year, above the national average. Michael Farley, the principal, gives part of the credit to working in the shadow of the financial centre of Canary Wharf.

So while second-year A-level and vocational students at the college mentor their counterparts just starting their courses, they in turn get support and inspiration from senior staff at the financial giants in the Docklands.

"We're fortunate in that we're just six or seven minutes away from Canary Wharf. A lot of financial services companies' senior managers are involved in mentoring as part of corporate social responsibility work," he said.

"They support our students who are in their second year and considering going to university. They help them stay on track, give them practical advice around motivation, the responses they need for interviews and so on."

That programme received grant funding until two years ago, but the college found it valuable enough to continue using its own funds.

But what Mr Farley said Aimhigher offered the college was help in getting teenagers to visit universities, many of whom are otherwise reluctant to leave their familiar neighbourhoods.

He said: "One of the challenges we have is around the aspirations of our youngsters. What we try to do is encourage our students to think beyond their immediate, local recruiting universities. There are some excellent ones nearby, but it might be better for some students to go elsewhere - either in London or further afield in the country. It's about them having the confidence to travel."

Mr Farley said the economics of HE and the wider job market were now more of an obstacle than students' confidence, however.

He said: "Cost is the main factor. That and they're seeing the news stories about youth unemployment - people are questioning the value of it all. Is it worth going through three or four years, racking up debt and not getting any further forward? We've got 22 or 23 per cent unemployment here. Almost all these young people know someone who is unemployed in their age group.

"Students are asking themselves these questions: what is the value of going to university if there is an alternative?"

He admits that with the funding arrangements still being worked out, it is harder than ever for staff to be sure that university will pay off. But the college is working to provide alternative routes to higher qualifications which will avoid debt.

It is in talks with one blue-chip company, which Mr Farley declined to name while negotiations continue, to offer students leaving the college one-year paid internships as a route into on-the-job training for degree- level and professional qualifications.

"We have to do more and more of this to get high level skills for students who will be totally turned off by the kind of fees that are being charged," he said.

Wes Streeting, chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation, which disburses grants for poor students to attend university, said the decision to announce fees first and resolve the details of supporting the poorest students later, had made the task of explaining the costs and benefits of university a tough one for colleges.

He said: "Because of the big change that is taking place and because fees are understandably talked about a lot, there are still many people who think fees must be paid up-front. We need to make sure they're making an informed decision. If people chose not to go to university because they think that it's too expensive, then that's a travesty. But if they chose not to go to university because they wrongly think that they have to pay the fees in advance, that's a disaster."


Why FE is essential

Among the guests visiting West Nottinghamshire College to speak to students and inspire them to raise their aspirations was Gururaj Rao, consul general of India, one of the country's senior diplomats.

It was, principal Asha Khemka admitted, a bit of a role reversal for a developing nation to give young people from one of the world's largest economies lessons on the importance of education. But poorer students are being expected to be more self-reliant in their pursuit of higher education, she said, like those in emerging economies.

She said: "In India people will sell their house, their property, they'll borrow money to get an education. Without it, they have no career or any way to get money. So we can learn from each other."

It was just one in a programme of speakers giving an international perspective on the value of education: the student union president at Nottingham University's Malaysia campus also addressed students.

Ms Khemka said students were "very scared" of debt, but the way loans worked was often not understood. "No-one in their family has been to university; they have little family support or encouragement. They have to think for themselves."

But she said the difficult economy was also persuading some students to pursue higher level studies. "The other day I saw a group of lads doing engineering and motor vehicle studies. Almost all of them has decided to stay on to do foundation degrees in engineering. How come? In the past, that didn't happen. But there are no jobs around, so they say they had better stay on and study," she said.

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