Not surprisingly, the tripling of tuition fees could be seen as a huge barrier deterring schoolchildren and young adults from transforming their lives by going to university.
Schoolchildren in poorer areas may not have even thought about university, some still believe only the well off can afford to better themselves with a degree. And now, given the media uproar invoked by the fees increase, many parents of underprivileged families are simply unaware of the financial support available to their children, and so may automatically reject the idea of higher education.
A number of schemes are already in place to help broaden the horizons of schoolchildren, such as those backed by organisations like OFFA and the Sutton Trust. The especially good news is that, increasingly, universities are either subscribing to or replicating these schemes.
With think tanks such as Million + and OFFA leading the way, many universities have introduced Widening Participation strategies to ensure fair access to higher education. Widening Participation has long been an issue for universities, since well before tuition fees were introduced, but now more than ever these schemes are needed to ensure fairness in access to a university education.
One such scheme is the Sutton Trust Academic Routes (STAR) whereby talented students in ‘low progression’ schools (those which have the least successive university applications) are targeted and enrolled on a three year programme starting in year 11. In partnership with two leading research universities, Leeds and Exeter, the Sutton Trust provides university taster sessions, residential courses, support and advice in order to encourage the most gifted, and those with the most potential, to attend a top university
Glasgow University has been something of a pioneer in Widening Participation. Its scheme, Top up Programme, targets 30 secondary schools in Scotland which have shockingly low (22% and below) university attendance amongst former pupils. The scheme, aims to prepare 1200 pupils every year for Higher Education by introducing them to university concepts such as seminars, lectures, critical thinking and note taking. Research shows that students who progressed through the Top-Up scheme in the past ten years have performed much better academically than other students from the same schools.
Similarly, the Sutton trust, in partnership with 11 universities, including Leeds, London School of Economics, Manchester, Southampton and Warwick, run the Pathways to Law Programme, a £1.5 million scheme which aims to introduce underprivileged but bright students to a career in law. The programme includes university on university applications, academic lectures, mentoring and a guaranteed work placement.
Widening participation has become a huge issue because of the fees increase. Progressively, projects similar to those mentioned above are being introduced at universities across the UK, ensuring academically able students aim higher.
Matt M Jones