What are universities doing to encourage students from poorer backgrounds?

In association with Sheffield Hallam

Russ Thorne
Wednesday 02 September 2015 11:56 BST

As we approach the start of a new term with record numbers of new students arriving at university, it's easy to overlook the fact that those freshers don't always fully reflect wider society.

Jackie Powell is the Higher Education Progression Partnership (HEPP) manager, which is part-funded by Sheffield Hallam University. HEPP provide impartial information and advice on higher education and higher level skills across the Sheffield City region, and Powell explains why universities need to make sure they encourage students from all backgrounds to apply.

“Our economy and labour market is becoming ever more technical, managerial and specialist,” she says. “We need more higher-level and graduate skills for our economy to grow. There is a wealth of untapped talent in young people who choose not to go to university.”

To reach that untapped talent, Sheffield Hallam holds road shows, discovery days and campus visits, prioritising engagement with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It's working insofar as 25 per cent of the university’s population now comes from low income households, but there’s more to do, says Powell. “Unfortunately some potential students discount university because of misconceptions, particularly around cost and the value of a degree. We need to continually challenge misinformation so that potential students and their parents base their decision on facts.”

Part of that challenge can be met in schools, suggests Robert Fowler, student money advice and rights team (SMART) co-ordinator at the University of Derby. The university’s outreach and widening participation team visits local schools and colleges, providing information around student life, study options, funding and budgeting, explains Powell. “These events are supported by current students, who can offer first-hand testimonials and real life information.”

There’s also a need to banish the myth that university is just for A-level students, argues Jon Parry, deputy director, Royal Veterinary College Access. “A range of qualifications such as Btecs and foundation degrees are also accepted. Universities can help by developing more course curriculums that equally favour A-level and non A-level students.”

Money and career concerns should also be addressed up front and Parry points out that RVC, along with other universities, has advisers who can discuss fees and funding. “Universities need to make it clear that the £9,000 fee doesn’t need to be paid up front,” he says. “Good advice on employability will also help to persuade students that the investment is worthwhile.”

Professor Sharon Clarke, director of teaching and learning at Manchester Business School, is confident that investment in a university education gives graduates more than subject-specific knowledge, highlighting the transferable skills and networks they develop. To ensure students from diverse backgrounds take advantage of these benefits, universities need to make their message clear, Clarke says. “They should consider how they can provide a better understanding of what university education can offer – it's not simply a route into particular occupations or jobs.”

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