Aspirations: an ambassador's work

January 21, 2005

Fahmida Ferdous never doubted that she would one day enrol on a degree course. "I always knew I was going to university," she says. "My mum went to university, my cousins went. My grandad was a school headmaster. It wasn't something I questioned."

Ferdous, whose parents came from Bangladesh, grew up in Copenhagen Street in Barnsbury, Islington. It is the archetypal inner-London street: a mix of Georgian terraced houses and modern flats, with the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy living cheek by jowl. Richmond Crescent, where Tony Blair once lived, is close by; yet a short walk in the opposite direction takes you to the dingy backstreets of King's Cross.

Despite the diversity of family backgrounds in the area, the Hefce study reveals the Barnsbury ward to be an area where nearly one in two 18 and 19-year-olds goes to university. This high take-up of higher education is mirrored in neighbouring wards: to the north is Holloway; to the west, Thornhill; to the east, St Mary; and to the south, Clerkenwell. All these districts are associated with participation rates of 38 to 48 per cent.

At Islington's Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School, however, Ferdous was in the minority. She says: "At 15, 16 years old, university was far, far away from us - only a handful in our class went on to do A levels."

In 2003, 50 per cent of pupils at the all-girls school secured five A-C grades at GCSE - lower than the national average .

Ferdous went to City and Islington College to take her A levels, and then won a place at Westminster University to study for a degree. Like many London-based students, she opted to stay close to home, and still lives in the borough of Islington, in Highbury.

But the first days of university proved a culture shock. "The weirdest thing is that I almost dropped out of university," Ferdous says. "The first week is the most stressful week ever. Luckily, I spoke to a lecturer and he comforted me."

She subsequently swapped courses and is now in the second year of a graphic information design degree.

Ferdous works as an ambassador for Westminister promoting higher education to local pupils in deprived schools. She believes teenagers are more inclined to listen to young students than to university staff.

She says: "I went back to my school to give a talk and spoke to the whole of Year 9. I could see from their faces that they engaged with me - they could see that I was in a similar situation not so long ago."

But according to Ferdous, her work is not just about persuading the most talented students that they should go into higher education, it is also all about ensuring that less-able students "have dreams and aspirations".

She points out that the key difference between those who aspire to university and those who do not consider higher education is simple: knowledge.

Many school pupils have fears about student debts, loans and tuition fees, she says; they have little idea of the strengths of different universities, and most are unaware that they do not have to pay full fees if their parents have a low income.

She says that most 15 and 16-year-olds are unlikely to read reports in broadsheet newspapers explaining tuition fees. They would be more likely to pick up information if fees were explained in the tabloid press or in TV adverts.

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