Leading Article: Universities can inspire the young

Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the great challenges facing universities and society as a whole is how to encourage young people from families with no experience of higher education to sign up for degrees. The Government has been trying with its AimHigher programme to introduce school pupils to university life, but the evidence suggests that this is an uphill task. Many young people are put off applying to university by what they see as its expense or its irrelevance, preferring to get on with the business of earning their living earlier rather than later.

One university that has had some success is Teesside, which launched a project in 1999 that has now been selected by the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) as a model of best practice. The Meteor programme started off small, targeting children in six Middlesbrough primary schools to think about the benefits or further and higher education. It did this via summer schools held on the campus. In the past eight years, it has expanded to cover secondary school pupils throughout Teesside, but 400 children from the top year of 14 local primary schools attend too.

One of the reasons that the project has caught Hefce's eye is that Teesside University keeps in touch with the pupils involved until they leave school. The young people attending the summer schools don't just take part in a mini-graduation ceremony at Middlesbrough Town Hall, they are also visited regularly by student ambassadors in their classrooms.

The key seems to be to start influencing children at a young age to get them thinking about their futures early on and to keep in contact with them. Another important factor is to ensure continuity of funding for the programme. Teesside has shown its commitment by providing one-half of the finance. The university decided it was no good relying simply on different pots of external money that come and go. If it wanted this to be a success, it had to make sure it had a stable source of funds.

All of this means that the children really do grow up with the University of Teesside. Admissions officers at the university are now enrolling the first students to come out of Meteor's first year. They were 10-year-olds then and have grown into aspiring 18-year-olds.