02 July 2011
Widening the background of students at University
How higher tuition fees at UK universities could actually give more access to poorer students.
Widening participation in higher education by students from poorer backgrounds or deprived communities is a policy area which will receive considerable attention in the coming months as the UK Government has stated that for Universities to charge the maximum tuition fees of £9K per year from 2012/13 they will be required to meet the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) guidance on Access Agreements stating how the Institution intends to sustain and improve access and retention of students. This paper summarises some of the factors behind participation rates in higher education for students from poorer backgrounds and considers principles of potential solutions.
There are a complex range of factors involved in any student deciding if they should enter higher education and where they might apply. The opinions of teachers, parents and peers all play a role as well as academic support and achievement, self-image and confidence, perceptions of the requirements and culture of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and personal financial position. Generally students from poorer backgrounds have a more complex set of factors influencing their decision than students from more affluent family situation: they may be the first generation in their family and social network to contemplate higher education and may not have any experienced role models or advisors to turn to for support; they are less likely to receive the necessary targeted tuition to translate their intelligence into academic assessment performance; they may be limited geographically in their choice of HEI by a need to live at home for financial or cultural reasons; they and their parents are more likely to fear the potential debts created by three or four years of study; they may have lower aspirations or self-confidence; their school or college is less likely to be well equipped for advising students on academic career paths they are also statistically more likely to have financial dependants.
The key factors for any university to maintain and increase its participation of students from poorer backgrounds is that these students are supported to achieve the entry requirements for their courses, are provided with accurate guidance on the benefits of higher education and that they perceive that university is a place where they desire to study and where they will feel happy. This requires that all universities engaged in this agenda build strong channels into secondary education in deprived communities in order to engage with pupils from poorer backgrounds providing support to: inspire pupils with insight into the real world application of academic knowledge and research; translate academic potential in students into the necessary assessed achievement in all required subjects; offer guidance to teachers and parents to support students to make informed choices and to understand the perception of their university and how it can provide tailored support to individuals to enable them to continue into higher education.
Effectively engaging with students from deprived communities to impact on participation in higher education requires a long term strategy. A central principle is that building relationships both internal and external is vital for the strategy to become embedded in the culture of the University. Teachers are the gatekeepers to accessing appropriate students and discovering and nurturing relationships with teachers who share the vision and see the value in this activity is essential. Experience schools outreach work in has shown that enthusiastic teachers put forwards students most likely to benefit from this type of activity and can be equipped to deliver more exciting and inspiring lessons through specific teacher training packages. Teachers themselves can also be equipped with knowledge and understanding to build a sense of possibility and ambition into pupils, encouraging them to think about higher education as part of their futures and supporting them with accurate and current information about courses and careers.
Building and nurturing relationships with teachers requires a connected team of subject advocates; individuals with a passion and a remit to engage with teachers of their subject in deprived communities. The right people in these roles could inspire others in departments and faculties to support and take part in this activity through the building of internal bridges, investing in working with individual academics and researchers to offer them appropriate opportunities to engage with and inspire pupils and maximising the effectiveness of their investment of time.
Many universities occupy campuses adjacent to deprived communities within cities or towns which will have a strong link to and awareness of their local university. Universities are often one of the largest employers within their local area hence many of the pupils in these communities may have a family connection to the university. The physical proximity could allow for strong and long term two way interaction with local schools and the combination of investment in relationships with teachers (potentially accessed through alumni communications, physical social networks and some cold contact) and the opportunity for university staff to make a difference in their local community could resource and build an organic network of local schools connections. By investing close to home, outreach investment could potentially have a greater impact; visits to the campus would be easy to facilitate and inexpensive to deliver without the requirement for accommodation and exam preparation, parents meetings or careers guidance could be delivered face to face.
As well as the grass roots activities of internal advocates and engagement staff, the work would benefit from recognition and promotion by the management of the university. This could involve questions about engagement activity participation as part of the Annual Review process; questions at interview about candidates desire to be involved in schools support and departments individually being held to account for performance. One idea could be that universities could mirror the policies of some large corporation who require that staff give a proportion of their time to activities which support the corporate social responsibility agenda of the organisation. The experience is largely that if an academic or researcher takes part in an appropriately tailored activity with schools their experience is almost always positive and they are keen to be involved in subsequent activities.
The types of support necessary to individual pupils and schools depend on the given circumstances and a menu of support options would facilitate a flexible approach. An initial interaction might be at a wide level with a whole class or year group highlighting the potential of a particular subject in the real world and the cutting edge of research in that field to inspire students. Finding students or researchers to help with the activities who experienced a similar education to the pupils involved in the outreach can also really help to ground the reality that studying in higher education is an achievable aspiration.
In many schools a significant barrier to break might be parental attitudes to higher education and potential debt. In order equip and value the contribution of parents the student finance team could deliver sessions on what repayment plans will look like and their impact on graduate incomes as well as the types of bursaries and grants available to students from low income families in combination with careers advisors describing the opportunities which degrees open up and admissions describing the timescales and processes of UCAS thus equipping parents to support their children in making decisions.
Another offer might be in tutoring individuals or groups of students to achieve the examination grades which they require. It may be that individual students need help in a weaker subject in order to achieve the combination to grades required to enter their preferred course. Few schools have the resources available to provide this support and many have to focus on supporting borderline C/D candidates to ensure that the school hits their targets.
In conclusion this draws a number of recommendations which form the pillars of a strategy for engagement with schools and colleges in deprived communities:
- Focussing on their local deprived communities could allow universities to increase local positive impact, build community engagement and improve the perception of their organisations. This approach would maximise the face to face contact with cohorts of students and minimise travel costs and time.
- The key to building with pupils in deprived communities is identifying and investing in relationships with teachers who resonate with this agenda. These individuals can be found through a number of creative routes for example:
- Alumni networks (teachers who will feel connected to the university where they themselves studied);
- Offering workshops or forums to teachers on subjects like higher education funding and grants/bursaries, professional development sessions in creative ways to teach/inspire pupil in particular subjects or careers support to inform pupils about the potential of higher education
- Mapping the connections which already exist within a University and the pockets of organically developed outreach and engagement activities, building on these existing links.
- It is vital to the sustainability of this activity that schools involved can influence the support that they receive and are partner to shape the tailored offer to their pupils. This offer could incorporate elements such as:
- University visit to witness cutting edge research, meet students and staff and experience the environment
- Demonstration talks to groups of students to inspire with the potential of a particular subject
- Parent information sessions on higher education funding, opportunities, requirements etc delivered by a multi agency team of student finance, careers advice, student recruitment and academics
- Access to specific tutoring to support students in the secondary subjects required to access their preferred degree course
- Building up a network of professional outreach staff and department advocates across a university who are resourced and informed to be able to build with and support schools and to provide a link to their faculty enabling others to engage with this agenda
- Providing a formal mechanism of recognition for academic and non-academic staff engaged in this activity perhaps through Annual Reviews and/or internal awards for outstanding pupil engagement. Equally an annual opportunity or requirement for research active staff to give an annual commitment of time to this work