The University of Sunderland does not normally top league tables. In March, however, it led the list of universities that excel at recruiting students from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to a THES indicator derived from data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
As a reward, it will receive an extra Pounds 33 per full-time student next year from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, plus other cash announced last week for part-time students.
"We are widening access to higher education in a region that underachieves and has high unemployment," said Peter Fidler, who took over as vice-chancellor at the end of last month.
The university runs a central programme to recruit and retain students from under-represented groups, and each school has individual initiatives. "It is a question of finding how we can make education attractive to these groups," said Marilyn Ramshaw, director of the centre for independent and combined programmes.
In a region that has undergone massive economic change in the past decade, the university has worked hard to raise aspirations. About half of its 15,000 students come from the local area, most work at least part-time and almost half are aged over 25. "We will put on any course that will attract people and get them to take the first step in education," Mrs Ramshaw said. The university runs taster courses including "The hitch-hiker's guide to science", "Computing for grandparents" and courses in aromatherapy and Indian head massage.
The university also targets groups that need retraining. "When the coal mines and the shipyards closed, we went out to those men and recruited them by standing at the gates and talking to them," Mrs Ramshaw said. "In a few weeks, Vaux, one of our local breweries, is due to close with the loss of 600 to 700 jobs plus supporting jobs. We are putting our heads together with other local education providers to look at the packages we can put together for those people."
Once potential students have entered, staff assess their potential and interest and try to recruit them to access courses, higher national certificate, higher national diploma and degree programmes.
Careful preparation is essential. "Mature students face a particular set of problems," said Mrs Ramshaw. "The first is financial. Our taster sessions look at the cost of higher education and how to plan for it. The second is family commitments. We run courses that are two weeks long to give potential students a feel for the commitment that is necessary. It is about educating partners and families as well, to get them to see the benefits of higher education."
Flexibility is crucial. Students can take courses full-time or part-time, with hours to suit people with young children and those with day jobs. Students can also switch easily between full-time and part-time modes and between different levels of study.
Once students from disadvantaged backgrounds have enrolled, staff work hard to keep them by providing counselling and help in finding work with appropriate hours and pay. It runs a "job shop" in which local companies can advertise vacancies. Many students work in the area's growth industry, call centres. "We are looking at putting our computers into call centres so that students can use them on their lunch hours, if they have a gap in their shift work, or before or after work," Mrs Ramshaw said.
She is particularly well placed to understand the needs of mature students, having been one herself when the university was Sunderland Polytechnic. She left school without A levels to become a laboratory technician. To boost her career prospects, she approached the poly to ask about taking A levels. "They offered me a degree place, and I was terrified," she said. "I agreed to an HND with transfer to a degree programme at the end of the course."
Sunderland also targets young students who might not have considered higher education. For sixth-formers, staff run courses on what higher education can offer, what it costs and how to choose a course. Sixth-formers who have taken the course get early offers of places in their lower sixth. "They don't necessarily come to us, but it does put higher education on the agenda," Mrs Ramshaw said. "We also recognise the value of general non-vocational qualifications. Often GNVQ students are perceived to be low achievers - they are not."
The university plans to build on its success at widening participation. First, it will continue and expand its initiatives. The new vice-chancellor, however, wants to do more. "The brief I have been given by the board is to move the university to the position where we attract students not only because we are local but because we are the best," Professor Fidler said. "In the past, the university saw its regional mission as being the top priority. The next period is about quality. Quality is the key to this university's reputation, and it is quality that will underpin the next generation of regional partnerships." Professor Fidler intends to focus the university's efforts in its strongest areas and to build up research expertise.