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Why Uni Connect matters, especially in cities like London

  • 21 December 2020
  • By Diana Beech, Richard Boffey & Graeme Atherton

his guest blog has been kindly written for us by Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive of London Higher, Dr Richard Boffey, Deputy Head of AccessHE, and Dr Graeme Atherton, Head of AccessHE. AccessHE is part of the London Higher group representing universities and higher education colleges across the capital. You can find them on Twitter @LondonHigher @AccessHE @dianajbeech

On 15 December, the Office for Students (OfS) began the consultation process on the future of the Uni Connect programme, setting out plans to extend the programme’s funding to 2025.

Formerly known as the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP), the Uni Connect scheme brings together 29 partnerships of universities, colleges and other local partners to help students from under-represented backgrounds understand the benefits of higher education and access impartial information, advice and guidance.

During the academic year 2018-19, over 180,000 young people and 1,613 schools took part in higher education outreach activities across England through phase one of the Uni Connect scheme. Since 1 August 2019, the programme has been in its second phase, offering targeted higher education outreach within local areas where it can have the most impact and providing a platform for wider collaboration.

In London, a city where half the boroughs remain in the most deprived third of English local authorities, Uni Connect activities play an important role in helping under-represented learners realise their higher education ambitions. The AccessHE division of London Higher forms just one part of the wider London Consortium delivering the Uni Connect programme, seeking to support young people make informed decisions about their future.

In a city where disparities run deep, schemes like Uni Connect have always been vital to reducing the gap in higher education participation between the most and least represented groups across the capital. And after a year where the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated disadvantages for the city’s poorest, the need for schemes which reduce inequalities is greater now than ever.

Even before Covid-19, London had the highest poverty rates in the UK. So, if this Government remains serious about ‘levelling-up’ opportunities and addressing regional disparities, then it is essential young Londoners are not left to fall even further behind and continue to benefit from schemes like Uni Connect that can lift them up and realise their future potential.

Where AccessHE’s Uni Connect programmes are concerned, the aim has always been not just to engage learners in so-called ‘low higher education participation neighbourhoods’ but to work with young people across London who experience barriers of one kind or another to accessing higher education.

To highlight one such example, learners from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are significantly underrepresented in the capital’s creative industries and in the creative higher education programmes responsible for training the next generation of creative talent. Closing this participation gap requires schools, colleges, higher education providers and employers to work together and Uni Connect has enabled precisely this, giving rise to the AccessHE Creative platform, which offers course insights, information on creative jobs and support with portfolio higher education applications to schools and colleges across the capital.

The collaborative infrastructure provided by Uni Connect has helped to engage higher education participation ‘cold spots’ in a concerted way too, ensuring no learners miss out on the opportunities provided by going to college or university. Evidence of this is shown through the programme’s footprint in those areas of London with the lowest higher education progression rates – a footprint that has actually grown during the period of school closures resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, through the provision of online summer schools, workshops and mentoring sessions.

Delivering Uni Connect in London is not without its challenges though – in particular, the need to focus intently on learners from the areas of lowest higher education participation. Less than 20 of London’s 613 electoral wards fall into this low participation category, despite the capital being blighted by poverty across the whole city, as is argued above. It is therefore encouraging that the OfS’s consultation proposes a shift away from ‘areas based targeting’ to targeting priority schools and colleges in its next phase. However, it is crucial that this new approach is sensitive to the fact that virtually all schools and colleges, no matter how well they do overall, include some learners for whom more support is needed.

Uni Connect represents the sixth different iteration of a regionally based collaborative outreach project in 20 years. It sums up the phrase nicely, ‘if it did not exist you would have to invent it’. That is why it is encouraging that the OfS wants to avoid having to re-invent Uni Connect under another name in several years’ time and support the continuation of the project. It is essential though that, in doing so, it uses the resources the programme has effectively, targeting educational disadvantage in all areas of the country – and that must mean including all of London as well.

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