Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Analysis - Outreach - Inferior Reach of Fighters in Poor's Corner

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Analysis - Outreach - Inferior Reach of Fighters in Poor's Corner

Article excerpt

'Mixed economy' for initiatives makes a difference but national ambit is missing. Jack Grove reports.

Anton Stevens made his first visit to Brunel University at the age of 12.

Over the next four years, he would travel 90 minutes across London every Saturday from his home in Tottenham to be taught by volunteer students and lecturers at the institution's campus in Uxbridge.

Despite his love of lazy Saturday morning lie-ins, he did not miss a single session during his time with the university's Urban Scholars programme, which targets bright but underachieving pupils in deprived areas.

"I have to thank my parents for their old-fashioned Jamaican discipline in getting me to Brunel every week," said the student, now in the final year of a mathematics course at the university. "Neither of them had been to university, but they were so proud that I had been selected as someone who could make it there.

"My parents would tell all their friends about their son going to university and that forced me to commit and work harder so I could get the grades I needed. Brunel also provided some very nice lunches, so I always looked forward to them, too!"

The Urban Scholars scheme and similar "gifted and talented" university projects often produce heartwarming tales such as this. But such resource- heavy, multi-year initiatives can accommodate only limited numbers of participants.

Now in its 12th year, Urban Scholars has grown from just 20 students in 2000 to 600 children - a cohort set to reach 1,200 within the next four years.

No small achievement, but even if every one of London's 40-plus higher education institutions were to replicate the same numbers on their outreach schemes, they would still reach only a tiny proportion of the capital's schoolchildren.

Schools in areas not served by a local university are likely to find access to such schemes even more limited, with many lucky to have had a single visit from a higher education representative.

"If you are a child in a coastal or rural area you will suffer, because why would a university spend their time and money going out to you when they could reach local children more easily?" said Neil Harrison, senior research fellow in education at the University of the West of England. "Many universities appear to be focusing on a small (number) of students to hit their access agreements, but that means rural areas are left out."

Fragmented state

The lack of a coordinated network of nationwide university outreach schemes has prompted widespread concern since the Aimhigher programme was ended by the government last year.

Graeme Atherton, director of AccessHE, which coordinates outreach activities by London universities, said he believed that a "postcode lottery" meant many children were not getting the advice they needed.

A study he published last month, Riding the Storm, shows most schools outside the UK's large metropolises are unlikely to have contacts within a network of institutions, in contrast to the state of affairs with Aimhigher. Instead they must develop their own links with individual universities - a fragmented approach that risks leaving some children without any contact with higher education institutions at all.

While individual universities will reach many potential applicants, the failure to replace Aimhigher's national and regional efforts means that there is a serious gap in the guidance available to thousands of teenagers, said Dr Atherton. …

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