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University support for poorer school leavers must not 'stop at the front door'

Universities and colleges must do more to support students from poor backgrounds throughout their studies and not just focus on broadening their intake, the access to higher education watchdog has said.

In its annual report, the Office for Fair Access to Higher Education (Offa) said that universities need to work harder with schools and the wider community to ensure disadvantaged students have the necessary support not only to choose university, but also to succeed once there.

Writing in the report’s foreword, Professor Les Ebdon, Offa’s director, said that the assistance provided by universities must be continued through a student’s university or college career if fairer access is to be “meaningful”.

“An effective approach to access should not stop at the front door when a person enters higher education,” Professor Ebdon said.

“Disadvantage can follow you like a shadow down the years, affecting the degree you end up with and your ensuing postgraduate study or search for a job. For access to be meaningful, there must be appropriate support for students as they progress through their studies and continue to employment or postgraduate study.”

The report follows comes after it was revealed last month that only 50 out of the 30,000 students in receipt of free school meals were accepted to Oxford and Cambridge universities in 2011, fewer than the 60 that were awarded places from one private school, Eton College, and the 65 that made it from Westminster.  

Offa highlighted initiatives undertaken by institutions such as Nottingham Trent University, which has an outreach programme from primary school onwards. The programme provides advice and guidance to young people all the way through to university to ensure that poorer students do not choose the wrong course and drop out.

The report also underlined the importance of promoting fairer access and universities broadening their intakes, stating that it benefits society as a whole.

“There is no conflict between fair access and academic excellence. Nor should there be. Fair access is about searching out academic potential wherever it is found – in every type of neighbourhood, every type of school and every age group, ethnic group and gender,” Professor Ebdon said.

“It’s about recognising that academic potential is not only reflected in existing qualifications. It’s about acknowledging that a wide range of people have the potential to become the excellent graduates who will later run our businesses and lead our country."

And he added: “We all benefit, economically and socially, from high-quality graduates, and it is in all our interests that universities and colleges recruit the very best minds, regardless of background.”

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