We’re not selling top university ambitions early enough

Giving young people an early taste of university life can broaden social diversity in our elite institutions, says Harry Hortyn

Applying to an elite university is not for the faint-hearted; it’s a tough process for even the most confident student. But for young people who come from backgrounds where few people attend university, the idea may not even be on their radar.

This was the case for Nadia Awad, a Year 10 student at Heston Community School in Hounslow. 

Although she was a capable and hard-working student, Nadia was finding it difficult to engage with some aspects of her studies, and the thought of aiming for Oxbridge could not have been further from her mind.

But having the opportunity to experience university life turned everything around. A chance to stay in an Oxford College and study the poetry of AE Housman, explore the concept of utilitarianism and try punting on the river gave Nadia a taste of life as a student, and the motivation to succeed.

As a result, Nadia was inspired to achieve A*s and As in her GCSEs and has offers from high-ranking UK universities to study history. She’s got her sights set on Oxford University, where she’ll attend an interview in the coming days.

Pre-GCSE targeting

But if Nadia had not been exposed to all that a top university can offer, things could have been very different.

Reaching out and encouraging young people who come from less affluent backgrounds, but who have the ability, motivation and potential for higher education can be a challenge. The difficulty is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are still under-represented in higher education, and particularly at highly selective universities.

And, yet, diversity in education institutions provides significant benefits for the institution itself and also for the students and academics, by creating a richer educational environment and a greater breadth of ideas.

While we are starting to see a positive impact on diversity from the widening access schemes in higher education, there is still a lot of work to be done.

There are some excellent Year 12 programmes (including Oxford’s UNIQ summer school and the Sutton Trust) that help students explore their subjects and gain the confidence they need to make a strong application. But focusing on Year 12 alone isn’t enough. We need to catch young people earlier than that. Targeting students before they take their GCSEs can make all the difference in altering the trajectory of those who either aren’t considering university or who are currently underachieving.

By working with students in Year 10, there is more time to open their minds to the possibility of a university education, so they are equipped with the grades, motivation and knowledge of the system to stand the best chance of making a successful application. There’s growing evidence of the impact of Year 10 interventions that recognises the importance of reaching students before the all-encompassing short-term academic demands of GCSEs or A-level exams.

Demystifying HE

But part of the problem is that for many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, the prospect of a highly selective university holds little appeal, simply because they have no experience of it. For some, the idea of university, and the application processes that go with it, can be intimidating, particularly for students who are first generation applicants.

However, if you give able young people the university experience by introducing new areas of study, piquing their intellectual curiosity and allowing them to enjoy the surroundings, you can open their eyes to everything a university education can offer.

When Nadia participated in a programme at Oxford University run by the charity Universify Education, she had the opportunity to explore subjects that were new to her. “Attending the summer programme allowed me to develop my higher thinking skills in subjects such as philosophy and law and apply them to my own learning.”

When you demystify the university experience, you can drastically change the perceptions of young people and encourage them to feel that university is for them after all.

Students arriving on a summer course in Oxford were asked what they thought university life would be like. The words they used were ‘busy’, ‘hard’ and ‘stressful’. But after a week of taking part in academic and social activities in a university setting, they described university as being ‘achievable’ and ‘exciting’, ideas that had not been apparent at the beginning of the course.

Building self-esteem

Of course, giving young people a clearer insight into what university life is like is only part of the story. The challenge is to help them believe that they have the potential to aspire to an elite university themselves.

In doing this, it’s important to help students develop their self-esteem, and encourage them to understand that they are in control of their future. Building confidence is crucial, so students believe that they have what it takes to succeed when making an application.

By the end of the summer course, there was a 67% increase in students who were very likely to apply

Spending time in a university environment can help to build that confidence. At the end of one of the summer courses for Year 10s, 85% of students reported that they were ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ to apply to a highly selective university such as Oxford. And there was a 67% increase in those students who were ‘very likely’ to apply by the end of the course. 

As GCSE attainment is crucial to the likelihood of making a successful application to a highly selective university, motivation to succeed is a key factor. And when they have a goal such as a university w place to aim for, students are more likely to go the extra mile with their studies.

This was the case with the participants on the Universify programme, as 84% of their teachers agreed that the programme had benefited student attainment at GCSE.

Daunting spires

However, even young people who are confident in their academic performance can feel unnerved by the grand settings of our ancient universities. The elegant buildings, pristine lawns and historic college buildings may seem rather daunting.

But once inside these colleges, students start to change their views. Having the opportunity to sit in a lecture hall, visit a college library and stay in student accommodation can help young people to feel more at home in their surroundings. Having attended a course at Somerville College, Oxford, 91% of students said they felt comfortable in the setting and with the student group.

For Nadia, the pre-university experience helped her develop the skills she needs to flourish in that environment. “It has allowed me to make lifelong friends, learn about interesting subjects I previously considered boring, and enhance my academic skills.”

Bringing the university experience to life for young people from backgrounds which are under-represented in higher education is an effective way to encourage them to imagine themselves as university students. And by starting this process of familiarising students with university as early as Year 10, you are more likely to have a positive impact on their GCSE outcomes.

Crucially, when we open up our leading institutions to people with non-traditional university backgrounds, we help to address the need for greater social diversity in higher education and, ultimately, the workplace.

This approach not only shows students that a highly selective university is a realistic destination for them, it awakens their intellectual curiosity and hunger to learn. More students like Nadia should have the chance to look forward to an exciting academic journey. 

Harry Hortyn is founder of education charity Universify Education and co-founder of Oxford Summer Courses. Universify’s impact report is available at https://universifyeducation.com