The government's Excellence Challenge encourages universities to work with schools to raise the aspirations of disadvantaged bright young pupils. Is it working? asks Claire Sanders.
The £190 million Excellence Challenge, launched in September 2000, has to work if the government is to achieve its ambitious widening participation targets.
"The Excellence Challenge is a substantial commitment of resource: it demands substantial progress as a result," wrote David Blunkett, then secretary of state for education, in his annual letter to the Higher Education Funding Council for England in November 2000.
Prime minister Tony Blair has repeatedly stated that by 2010, 50 per cent of young people should have the opportunity of benefiting from higher education by the time they are 30.
To achieve this, universities have to, in the words of education secretary Estelle Morris, "grow demand for places". Gone are the days when grants and awards were simply means-tested in the hope that they reached the right people - now they are targeted at specific pupils, some as young as 11, and combined with a raft of other measures.
The Excellence Challenge calls on universities to work with schools, local education authorities and further education colleges - as well as with each other - to get young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher education.
The challenge specifically requires universities to work with schools in Excellence in Cities (EiC) areas and Education Action Zones (EAZs). It also has to dovetail with the whole standards agenda in schools, improvements in further education, new 14 to 19 qualifications and the Connexions service. And it has to dovetail with the many initiatives already run by universities themselves and the cash being channelled towards widening participation by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, such as the postcode premium.
As the case studies opposite demonstrate, this coordination is one of its main benefits.
Christopher Croudace, educational initiatives coordinator at the University of West of England, said: "UWE has been putting great energy into a whole raft of activities and initiatives - some 56 in all - aimed at raising the aspirations and achievement levels of young people in the locality.
"The Excellence Challenge has enabled us to connect these together in a more coherent way and to encourage their take-up in partnership schools and colleges."
The challenge has also encouraged local universities to work together to raise the aspirations of young people in Bristol.
UWE has collaborated with Bristol, Bath and Bath Spa to produce a Higher Education Opportunities Prospectus that sets out a programme of activities, such as visits to universities, aimed at 11 to 19-year-olds from local schools and colleges.
But all those working to coordinate the initiative stress that the current funding regime for students works against them.
Pat Norman, regional liaison director at Oxford Brookes University, with responsibility for widening participation, said: "Our research for the Excellence Challenge showed that only two pupils in our two most disadvantaged schools were eligible for opportunity bursaries. This is not because the rest were wealthy - it is because the bright kids had been lured into jobs at 16. Oxford has many good employment opportunities and these jobs were infinitely more attractive than the debt now associated with higher education."
The review of student support is eagerly awaited.
There are also concerns that the challenge is not nationwide. The government has sought to address areas of deprivation outside EiCs and EAZs by setting up Excellence Clusters - wider groupings of schools. But the announcement that zones are to be phased out and incorporated into the cities initiative has created uncertainty for universities specifically linking in with zones.
Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "We are aware that EAZs/Excellence Challenge are limited in scope and that they do not cover all areas in the country.
"Moreover, universities need additional funding to cover the costs of both recruiting and retaining these students throughout their studies."
And there are fears about who benefits from the schemes.
"The government's highly targeted approach smacks of Victorian attitudes around the worthy poor and unworthy poor," said one student support officer who preferred to remain anonymous. "We are going into schools and picking out students at an early age. Great thought has to be given to the criteria used and the targets set."
In response to Hefce's consultation on widening participation funding, put out in November 2000, many universities said that the focus on young students left out the mature.
There were also fears that students were being pushed towards full-time courses and that part-time courses were being ignored.