Petra Wend: University must be on young people’s radar

Action must be taken in a child’s early years to encourage them to enter higher education, writes Professor Petra Wend

Action must be taken in a child’s early years to encourage them to enter higher education, writes Professor Petra Wend

ONCE again Scottish universities have been called upon to grasp the thistle of unfair access to higher education and put an end to the perceived dismal representation of poorer students in our institutions.

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According to NUS Scotland’s recently published report Unlocking Scotland’s Potential, unless universities step up their efforts, it will take forty years or more for university students to reflect fully society’s 20 per cent from the most deprived backgrounds.

Against a backdrop of free undergraduate tuition, available financial support and public funding, at present, only 8.6 per cent of young university students in Scotland are from the most deprived communities.

Whilst universities have an important part to play, it is too easy to suggest we carry the can for society’s failure to encourage people from deprived backgrounds to participate in higher learning. Whatever action universities take, deprivation and lack of ambition, or low achievement at school will prevent students from poorer backgrounds entering higher education unless action is taken in a child’s early years.

Scottish Government statistics show it is not the case that schools with higher proportions of students from poorer backgrounds send fewer students on to university. A number of schools with significant numbers of students from the most deprived 20 per cent of neighbourhoods, known as SIMD20 students, and students in receipt of free school meals, are shown to be in the top 10 per cent for progression to higher education.

But only 10.5 per cent of pupils from the 20 per cent most deprived areas obtain the normal minimum entry requirements for university, compared to 48 per cent from the least deprived 20 per cent. This means that the pool of potential applicants from the most deprived areas in Scotland from which the universities can recruit is relatively small, and must be grown if there is to be a very substantial improvement in widening access.

Support needs to be focused at three levels: before entry to university, during time at university and after graduation.

At Queen Margaret University, we have introduced a sustainable programme of activity designed to put the prospect of higher education on children’s radar from a young age. Our aim is to demystify university and make it accessible to all.

For example, our students work with primary school children through community theatre projects. Child-friendly play initiatives often culminate in children coming into university to showcase what they have learnt. This will usually be the first time they have been in a university and by meeting the principal and lecturers over juice and biscuits, and spending time with our students, they will see that study at university might be an option for them.

Another initiative, “Adopt an International Student”, saw our international students go into primary schools to talk to the children about their countries, followed by hundreds of children coming into the university to work with these students on films, dances and games from across the world. This integrates our students into the community and encourages an international outlook in young children.

We continue this support throughout secondary school in a similar way. As part of the Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools (LEAPS), which targets disadvantaged young people or those with little or no family experience of higher education, we encourage pupils and their parents to visit and discover more about university life.

This year, we will introduce our new East Lothian Hospitality and Tourism Academy, the first in Scotland to combine all education and training providers. The Academy, run in partnership with East Lothian Council, Jewel & Esk College, three East Lothian secondary schools and a number of hotel chains, will enable secondary pupils to either go directly into work, or on to further education or higher education.

Once at university we offer “QMConnect”, a mentoring service to help new students settle in. Our “Effective Learning Service” programme helps students work on research and language skills, for example. Our dedicated “Thinking of Leaving” initiative offers on-going help and advice, and early, proactive intervention for any student having doubts about continuing with their studies.

Every university needs to work to its strengths and characteristics to engage meaningfully in widening participation as, in fact, they are. However, if QMU were not positioned well above average in Scotland and in the UK in terms of research and knowledge exchange income, combined with its global focus in the same areas in which it is reaching out to young people, it could not afford to do so and it would be less effective.

Universities can, and should, have multiple functions, providing research, education, public engagement, economic development and social mobility. However, it is not and cannot only be the role of universities to support the education of young people. This needs to start much earlier.

Early learning support, nursery and family support; well-qualified and adequately rewarded teachers; curricula that do not rely on parental support; access to education irrespective of which geographical area you come from – these are all vital if we are to reflect our society in the make-up of students in our higher education institutions.

• Professor Petra Wend is principal and vice-chancellor of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh