A national programme has been launched to improve links between schools and universities and demystify the Oxbridge application process.
The £22 million scheme, run by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), will provide information on university outreach activities, including taster sessions and summer schools, as well as advice and support on areas such as applications and student finance.
The launch comes four years after the demise of Aimhigher, which also aimed to encourage more people into higher education but fell victim to government cuts in 2011. Funding for the successor project is less than a third of Aimhigher’s final-year budget of £78 million.
Unlike Aimhigher, the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach scheme will not give any money to schools, but will instead fund 35 local hubs, providing a single point of contact for schools. Each will have its own website, expected to be up and running by March.
“There is a lot of outreach work going on but it is fairly fragmented. This is about making it simple for schools and making sure the information is available to as many people as possible,” said Clair Murphy, senior higher education policy adviser at Hefce.
In addition to the local networks, three national hubs will focus on applications to Oxbridge and giving assistance to care leavers and older students.
Although some teachers were experienced in Oxbridge applications, others needed more support, Ms Murphy said. “We felt that the particularities of applying to Oxford and Cambridge needed a bit of a boost, especially in terms of advice to teachers and helping them to put their students forward.”
Analysis by the Sutton Trust education charity last year shows that five elite schools and colleges sent as many students to Oxford and Cambridge in one year as 1,800 state schools put together. The proportion of A-level students from comprehensives winning places at the country's top 30 universities has also fallen in recent years, the study shows.
Nick Higgins, Raising Aspirations coordinator at Brooke House Sixth Form College in East London, welcomed the move but said efforts to improve participation in higher education were most effective when they were tailored to individual students.
“Anything that raises awareness of outreach is useful, but we don’t want to get into a situation where it is done on a generic basis,” he added.