Help is at hand to get people from deprived backgrounds through university

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The Independent Online

One in five parents say their child has thought twice about applying for university because of the costs, according to a recent survey. So where does that leave people from extremely deprived backgrounds? Should they give up dreams of doing a degree?

Far from it, say UNIAID, a national independent charity helping students cope with financial hurdles to higher education. "There's lots of financial support available, including non-repayable support like bursaries. The problem is that many people don't know about it," says Jemma Samuels, UNIAID manager.

Among those least likely to think there's hope for them are people who are estranged from their parents. Mike Shillingford was made homeless and cut off from his family at 17. He assumed that his eligibility for financial help would be measured against his parents' income.

"I got an accommodation bursary entitling me to free accommodation and it was a life saver," says Shillingford, who is in his second year of a law degree at Nottingham Trent University.

Meanwhile, Sammy Gitau, a child of one of Nairobi's most notorious slums, managed to go to Manchester University, thanks to the university paying his fees and NGOs funding his living costs. Gitau had found the university's prospectus on a rubbish tip. Having started projects which were helping 20,000 children find a path out of poverty in Nairobi, he was encouraged to apply for an MSc in international development project management, despite no experience of essays or research.

Samuel Ayalew Assefa is another success story. A-CET (African Children's Educational Trust) were looking to involve Ethiopians in their work and sponsored him to come to the UK for an MSc in management information systems. Having come top in the 120 students in his year, he got offered an MPhil course in computational biology at Cambridge. He impressed them so much during his internship for his MPhil with the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge that he was offered a research post with them into falciparum malaria, Africa's biggest killer disease.

"Education has been opened up to me at every level in the UK. Poverty has not been an issue," he says.

The first port of call for any student facing financial hardship should be the Government. There are a number of government initiatives such as the Access to Learning Fund.

The second stop should be universities, which all provide bursaries, of varying amounts. Lynne Duckworth, director of advancement at the University of Central Lancashire, says: "Our support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds falls into three areas. First, outreach work, where we work with young people to build up an impression of university being something they can aspire to. Second, we make it easier for them to get to higher education and third, we offer financial and personal support."

Then there is a range of charities like the Helena Kennedy Foundation. "People apply to us in their final year of further education and if they're awarded one of our £1,000 bursaries, they can use it for what they want in their first year of higher education," says director Rachel Watters.

Other charities help specific groups. The Foyer Foundation helps homeless people, while the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics(CARA) helps refugees – who often suffer lack of recognition of existing qualifications.

DISC is another charity that offers a wide range of support. They recently helped a recovering drug user living on benefits in a flat with no furniture. They enbled him to source furniture and get a grant to get onto a course at Middlesbrough College, which led to him applying to Leeds University.

It is also possible to get funding from organisations such as the BBC.

Still confused? That's where organisations like UNIAID come in, providing guidance to students to find their way through the maze of support.