Widening access to university

An enthusiastic team of students is encouraging the less well-off to go to university
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The Independent Online

Giving a talk at an all-girls school would be a nail-biting prospect for most young men. And for Andrew Milne, 21, it was no different. "It was pretty daunting," he admits, remembering the first time he stood nervously in front of a classroom, preparing to talk about higher education. "But once the girls realised that I wasn't there to preach to them, we all relaxed a bit."

Milne is studying for a degree in media writing at Greenwich University. He's one of nearly 500 student ambassadors for Aspire, a partnership of universities, schools, colleges, community groups and boroughs in south-east London. It's part of Aimhigher, the national widening participation scheme, which aims to get information about access to higher education to young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Aspire employs students in higher education to raise the aspirations of schoolchildren, in a variety of ways. The student ambassadors are articulate and bursting with enthusiasm. After two days of intensive training, they are on call at open evenings, taster days and summer schools, fielding questions about university from parents and young people.

"You don't persuade them. You outline facts," explains May Lee, 24, who's in her third year of a PhD in geography at King's College London, and has worked for Aspire as a student ambassador for three years. She helps GCSE students at Geoffrey Chaucer School in Southwark with their lessons, going over tricky homework and revision.

Lee says that many students from less wealthy backgrounds worry that it will be hard to cope with the financial pressures of university. "We're there to figure out what barriers they're up against, and help them find solutions - making them aware of the financial support that's available, what jobs they can get and how much they can get paid."

Gwen Evans, project co-ordinator for Aspire, says that the scheme's driving aim is to scoop up youngsters from families where neither parent has been to university, and who might not otherwise consider further education as an option for them. "If you don't grow up in a family with relatives who assume going to university is normal, it may only be activities like this that give you a sense of how university might fit into your life," she argues. "The UK can't afford to waste talent. If we're going to compete globally, we need to find people in groups that wouldn't necessarily think that higher education was for them."

Evans believes that student ambassadors are crucial to the success of widening participation programmes like Aspire. "One of our greatest challenges is that although the information on access to higher education, fees, and courses exists, it doesn't always travel to communities where it can be useful. That's where student ambassadors can really help."

While parents are often most interested in the practicalities of student finance and accommodation, student ambassadors say that young people tend to ask questions about day-to-day student life. "Most parents want to know if it's the right college. Most young people think it will be boring," says Kenneth Buckley, 18, an A-level student at Greenwich Community College. "It's easier if they talk to students who are already at the college, because we can tell them what it's really like - about how much work we have, and about the social life and the teachers."

The project also works with communities where English is not the main spoken language. Two Somali-speaking student ambassadors from Greenwich Community College visit schools to support Somali students with coursework, and Aspire runs workshops for the Somali community in their native language.

"The parents are often immensely supportive, and want their children to have the best chances," explains Evans. "But it can be difficult to work out how to navigate the UK education system. We try to make the process clearer."

It's not a one-way street. Aspire's student ambassadors say they benefit from their experience talking to young people too. "It's rewarding. When I get an e-mail from a student saying they're thinking about applying to King's, it's nice to know the time I spent with them made an impact," confides Lee.

And Evans reports that many of Aspire's student ambassadors say their role makes them think about themselves. "It's being able to be the person to say, 'This is who I am, and this is how I manage.' The students are proud of what they're doing. They are setting up other young people for the future."