To improve access to higher education we should catch students early

Early exposure to an elite university environment could set students on the path towards academic success, says Harry Hortyn 

November 17, 2018
Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College, University of Oxford
Source: iStock

As a Year 10 student at Heston Community School in Hounslow, the idea of applying to an elite university could not have been further from Nadia Awad’s mind. Although she was an able student, Nadia was finding it difficult to engage with some aspects of her learning. 

Fast forward two years and Nadia is poised to submit her application to Oxford University to study history.

Having the opportunity to experience university life, albeit for a brief time, gave Nadia the incentive that she needed to achieve the requisite A*s and As in her GCSEs. But if she hadn’t had the chance to stay in an Oxford college and learn about utilitarianism, study the poetry of A. E. Housman and try her hand at punting, would she be an Oxbridge candidate now? 

Applying to an elite university is a tough process for the most confident student, but for young people such as Nadia, who comes from a place where few people go to university, the concept can be totally alien.

Although the impact of widening access schemes is starting to be felt, the reality is that more needs to be done to encourage those students who have the ability and motivation but come from less affluent backgrounds to consider an Oxbridge application – and to work towards the grades that will get them there.

Many higher education outreach programmes are designed to introduce sixth-formers to selective universities. But if we shift the focus slightly and target students even earlier, there will be more time to alter the trajectory of those who have the academic potential but are not considering university, or who are currently underachieving.

By showing 15-year-olds that a university education can be exciting, challenging and rewarding – and empowering them to believe that they can aspire to an elite university – you can set students on the road to achievement in time to make a difference.

But part of the problem is that for some young people, university simply isn’t on their radar. The only way to change this is to give these students the opportunity to see the world’s top universities for themselves.

If you immerse students in the university experience by introducing new topics, stimulating intellectual curiosity and sparking discussions, you can broaden their academic horizons and give them an insight into the true nature of education at an elite institution.

Nadia found inspiration in new areas of study by taking part in a programme at Oxford University run by the charity that I started, Universify Education. “Attending the summer programme allowed me to develop my higher thinking skills in subjects such as philosophy and law, and apply them to my own learning,” she said. 

The intellectual challenge is only part of the story. For some students, the grand settings of Oxford and Cambridge colleges with their pristine lawns can appear daunting, which is why there is a need to show young people that they can feel at home in these surroundings. 

The opportunity to visit a college library, stay in student accommodation and sit in a lecture hall all help to engage students with a university experience. This approach can transform views of higher education, helping young people believe that Oxbridge could be for them after all. 

That might explain why, at the end of the Universify Education course, 89 per cent of students in the programme said they would be “very likely” to apply for a place at a highly selective institution.

Nadia is glad she had a taste of life at a top university, which has helped her develop the skills she needs to thrive in that environment. “It has allowed me to make lifelong friends, learn about interesting subjects I previously considered boring – and enhance my academic skills,” she said. 

Bringing the university experience to life for people of all backgrounds is a powerful way to address the need for greater social diversity in our leading institutions. By demystifying elite universities and awakening young people’s hunger to learn, more students like Nadia could be looking forward to an exciting and fulfilling academic future.

Harry Hortyn is founder of the education charity Universify Education and co-founder of Oxford Summer Courses. 

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