Aimhigher revisited? New national outreach project launched

A national group of collaborative outreach networks working with schools and colleges has launched, four years after a similar project was scrapped

January 8, 2015

The creation of the National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) was announced today by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The NNCO has funding of £22 million – but to cover only 2014-15 and 2015-16.

Aimhigher, a network of regionally-based outreach programmes, was scrapped in 2011 amid government funding cuts. Aimhigher benefitted from funding of £78 million in its final year.

Hefce and David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, had signalled in 2013 that a slimmed-down successor to Aimhigher would be created.

In a statement, Hefce says the NNCO “will deliver a nationally co-ordinated approach to working with schools, universities and colleges to help people access higher education”, via 35 networks covering the whole of England.

Each network will appoint a single point of contact to help teachers and advisers find out about higher education outreach activity in their area and to provide general advice about progression into higher education, the funding council says. Three more networks will offer advice and support to specific groups of students at national level, including older learners wishing to continue or return to study and care leavers.

Greg Clark, the universities and science minister, said it was “vital that young people have the right information about progressing into higher education. These networks will ensure that schools and colleges across England can tap into that information and help their students learn about higher education in the classroom, online and through local outreach activity.”

Graeme Atherton, head of AccessHE, which organises school outreach activities for London universities, said there were “some similarities” between the NNCO and Aimhigher, although the former was “a lot smaller”.

Mr Atherton continued that fluctuations in government policy – with the scrapping of Aimhigher being followed by the later creation of the NNCO – had been “quite unhelpful in lots of ways” as in many areas of the country “a lot of expertise” from the Aimhigher years “has gone”.

He argued that the new network should have a “much clearer idea of what success criteria are” than Aimhigher had. There should be a clearer conception of “what engagement means”, going beyond “two or three visits a year” to a school to a more “strategic” understanding of the concept, he continued.

Mike Thompson, coordinator of Aimhigher West Midlands – a programme hosted at the University of Birmingham and kept running after the scrapping of Aimhigher – said there was a “sense of irony” in the creation of another national network.

But he said there were some “very significant” differences with Aimhigher, including the “much, much smaller cost” and “time limited” nature of the NNCO.

Mr Thompson also said the NNCO was “much less prescriptive in its aims and objectives” than Aimhigher had been.

One aim in the NNCO is to ensure that every state-funded secondary school and college has engagement with a university, he added. But this covered selective schools and comprehensives that were “about as different as you could imagine” and had very different needs, Mr Thompson continued.

As a result of the creation of the NNCO, Aimhigher West Midlands will expand from its group of four founding institutions – Birmingham, Aston University, Birmingham City University and University College Birmingham – to become a network of 12 higher education institutions.

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