Not dead yet: Aimhigher's aims live on

Local outreach initiatives forge ahead after 'absurd' closure of national programme. Jack Grove writes

January 5, 2012



Credit: Tony Hardacre
Alive and kicking: regional university partnerships are continuing widening participation efforts, albeit with fewer funds


"Social mobility in this country has stalled," declared David Willetts in the autumn after it was announced that a quarter of English universities had failed to meet their targets for the number of disadvantaged students they admitted.

Calling for "real progress in fair access, especially at our most selective institutions", the universities and science minister laid down the gauntlet for universities to attract more students from low-income backgrounds in the era of £9,000 tuition fees.

But with the end of funding for Aimhigher, which totalled £78 million in its final year, the challenge of finding, mentoring and supporting children from underprivileged backgrounds into university applications looks more difficult than ever.

The Labour Party has claimed that outreach expenditure will fall by 60 per cent this academic year, with spending 30 per cent lower in real terms by 2015.

Institutions predict that they will spend a total of £55.2 million in 2011-12, according to the Office for Fair Access, up from £39.4 million last year and rising to £77.9 million by 2012-13.

Confusion and uncertainty about fees, bursaries and debt levels for 2012 entry make the task of reaching poorer students even harder, said Wes Streeting, former president of the National Union of Students and now chief executive of the Helena Kennedy Foundation.

"We know that a lack of information, advice and guidance will not be a universal experience," he said.

"Some will fare better than others, with support from well-connected parents and dedicated support at school...For others, the task of navigating an increasingly crowded and complex landscape of information will seem overwhelming."

In this context, the decision to drop Aimhigher seemed "absurd", Mr Streeting said. "It established strong, collaborative networks and an army of practitioners with knowledge, skills and experience that are desperately needed."

With similar concerns in mind, many universities are looking to continue this work via local partnerships.

Four of Birmingham's institutions - Aston University, Birmingham City University, University College Birmingham and the University of Birmingham - have joined forces to set up their own regional initiative.

With reduced staff, it has continued Aimhigher's existing links with 50 schools, academies and colleges and will organise campus visits, summer schools and mentoring by undergraduate volunteers.

Josie Hurd, the partnership's mentoring coordinator, admitted that it would be tough after her Aimhigher team of 2.6 full-time equivalent staff shrank to just her, working three days a week.

She also acknowledged that some schools might find it hard to pay the subscription fees to participate. "I have schools which have the funding to take part, but others just can't get the funds," she said.

"Schools have asked us to focus on the pre-16 (age group) to develop a pool of potential applicants."

The Birmingham and Solihull regional partnership aims to put 100 undergraduate mentors into schools this academic year and foster links with 500 pupils aged 14 and 15.

That is half the contact available in 2009-10 in the region, when 200 mentors met 1,000 learners, volunteering 11,000 hours of their time. But given the level of resources, it is still an ambitious target.

The partnership will also stay true to the principle of the original Aimhigher scheme, acting as an impartial university taster experience, rather than a recruiting tool for individual institutions.

"It's about giving them an experience of higher education, rather than telling them to go to this or that university," Ms Hurd insisted.

Community first

However, there is some unease among those working in the field about committing limited resources to collaborative schemes when individual institutions are under pressure to hit their admissions targets.

The universities of Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter, Durham and University College London were all named in October as having missed their targets on access.

As one commentator at a recent conference, University Access and Admissions - The Next Steps, put it: "You are doing it for the community, but it will not necessarily show up in your figures."

But this neutrality remains central to another initiative to rise from the ashes of Aimhigher, Study Higher, which is being run by Bucks New University, Oxford Brookes University and the University of Oxford.

"They are all very different institutions and that helps keep it impartial," said Sally Cushing, widening participation manager at Bucks New.

With its core team of three staff intact, Study Higher will continue to provide the residential summer schools, mentoring and campus visits previously offered by Aimhigher.

New advice sessions on student finance for sixth-formers and their parents may also be set up.

However, Ms Cushing said that cuts imposed on schools and local authorities posed a considerable problem when coordinating contact time with students.

"What we are losing is the coordination team [within schools and local authorities]," the former Aimhigher organiser explained. "With [those teams] in place, we are able to find someone in each school with whom we can develop a relationship.

"For instance, in Milton Keynes, they have kept that coordinator on and the network [between universities and the schools] is alive.

"Schools are there to deliver the curriculum and everything above that is an extra cost. That is where Aimhigher and its money came in."

Ascertaining success

As for measuring the effectiveness of new schemes, she argued that it was important to focus on a specific cohort of underprivileged teenagers and their entry into higher education, rather than a mix of eye-catching but ineffective initiatives.

"Getting a cohort and measuring its success is the way forward. If we continue to deliver what was there in the past, we will make a difference."

Another widening participation scheme is AccessHE, which represents about 30 higher education institutions in Greater London, including Brunel University, the London School of Economics and the University of West London.

Projects include supporting towards university application 10 bright Year 10 pupils from low-income backgrounds with the potential to score AAB at A level plus e-mentoring and the sharing of best practice on outreach measures.

"It has a different character to Aimhigher, but the principles are the same," said Graeme Atherton, head of AccessHE and former executive director of Aimhigher London West, Central and North.

"It will be bringing the universities to the schools. We brought 100 learners and six universities together recently. Without us this sort of thing is not going to happen - no university is going to invite five others along if they arrange an event."

He said the aim was to get universities working in a "fiercely collaborative" way.

But he said that the funding of projects such as his was quite different from what had gone before.

"The big difference is we are providing services which [each] require investment, rather than using a grant to fund projects," he explained.

"I think you will see a lot of different ways of supporting students. Birmingham [and Solihull partnership] is similar to what Aimhigher did, whereas we have 25 institutions in London and eight or nine from outside London.

"It's more of a collaborative network. We will not have our own targets, but will be helping universities to meet their targets."

Simon Hughes, the coalition government's access advocate, who delivered a report on the issue this summer, has argued that involvement in a collaborative scheme should be a condition of all university access agreements.

"We have to have every sixth form, college and school linked to a university," he said at an event held to launch AccessHE.

Outreach should also start much earlier, he argued - at the age of 10 or 11. "We should think about these things in terms of youngsters leaving primary school," Mr Hughes said.

"We want them to think beyond things like playing [football] for England or The X Factor. We need to get people in there who will inspire them to go to university."

jack.grove@tsleducation.com.

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