The new National Networks of Collaborative Outreach programme is an opportunity that the sector cannot afford to waste again (“Aimhigher revisited? New national outreach project launched”, www.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 8 January). It is a chance to give schools and colleges a stake in what kind of outreach work the higher education sector carries out and to reach swathes of England that are, at present, being ignored. It is also a way of protecting widening participation in institutions from the creeping inertia of recruitment, which will no doubt gather pace when the cap on student numbers comes off this year.
The NNCO is eminently sustainable. With £11 million of funding a year, it costs less than 5 per cent of the student opportunity allocation and an even smaller fraction of the more than £700 million spent through access agreements. However, it will only be effective and last beyond the general election if the higher education institutions involved in the hosting and delivery of these networks take ownership of them and their story.
The overriding lesson from the near £1 billion experiment that was Aimhigher is that you cannot rely on the Higher Education Funding Council for England alone to keep collaborative outreach projects alive. The networks themselves have to work together as one collective, not 35 or, as under Aimhigher, 42 individual fiefdoms. This means proactively building an evidence base and a coalition of support for what these networks do that includes but transcends schools and colleges.
Analysis of data already collected for the network I lead in London shows that as many as 50 per cent of schools may not be receiving any regular outreach contact with the higher education sector. For the sake of these learners we have to make this project last. But it is up to us to do it as we may not get a third chance.