Universities told to send ambassadors to deprived schools

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Universities should send "ambassadors" into the country's most deprived schools to teach children as young as 11 the benefits of higher education, the Government said.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said there was a need to combat the image still held by many youngsters from deprived backgrounds of universities as "ivory towers that were not for them".

The plan was floated as part of a review she announced yesterday into widening participation and improving quality in higher education. Ms Morris also offered the prospects of cash incentives to universities to improve the quality of their teaching.

Speaking at London Guildhall University, she said: "Universities are not a birthright for the middle classes. None of us can defend the position where five times as many young people from professional backgrounds enter higher education compared with those from unskilled and manual backgrounds – 73 to 74 per cent compared with 13 to 14 per cent – and when that gap has not narrowed in recent time. This is not about just the occasional open day or summer school but day-in, day-out co-operation with the staff of schools and colleges."

After her speech, she said the visits should initially involve children from year ten and above (those aged at least 14) which was the point where disaffection could come in, and the initiative ought to be expanded to cover younger children later.

Ms Morris went on to stress that students would still have to contribute towards the cost of their higher education even after the completion of a government review of student finance – which could see a return of maintenance grants – this winter.

The review was welcomed by Professor Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK. He added, though, that the view of universities as "ivory towers" was "slightly outdated. When you go to universities you will find that they are working closely with colleges and schools," he added.

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