'Children Should Start Thinking About University Degrees When They're Seven', Says OFFA

Children as young as seven should be encouraged to think about studying for a degree when they leave school, a university watchdog has said.

Universities must do more to help raise children's aspirations and achievement at an early age to ensure they have a fair chance of going on to higher education, according to the Office For Fair Access (OFFA).

It also says that institutions should spend more time and money on supporting potential mature students, and suggests they could consider sponsoring academies or free schools.

The call is included in OFFA's new guidance to universities on completing "access agreements" for the 2014/15 academic year.

Under the shake-up of the university funding system, every institution planning to charge students more than £6,000 in fees now has to complete an annual agreement setting out how they will ensure students from deprived neighbourhoods, or from groups less likely to go into higher education, are not priced out.

This could include fee waivers, or subsidised fees for poorer students and spending money on "outreach" work to raise aspirations and achievement in schools and encourage more disadvantaged youngsters to apply.

The agreements are reviewed each year, with universities that fail to meet their agreed targets on recruitment and retention facing the prospect of fines of up to £500,000, and losing the right to charge more than £6,000.

The latest document, the first to be published by new OFFA director Professor Les Ebdon, says it is vital that universities and colleges do much more to encourage disadvantaged students to study for a degree.

Professor Ebdon says that he wants to see a "step-change", adding: "Let there be no doubt - sustained, well-targeted outreach such as summer schools, masterclasses and mentoring can be very effective and we want to see more of it."

OFFA says that universities must set out in their agreements the work they are doing with younger children, including those age seven to 11, who are still at primary school.

This could include campus visits, or running activities that would spark a child's interest in a subject.

The document says that OFFA "strongly encourages" institutions to have strong links with schools and colleges that traditionally send few students to university, or have large proportions of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Prof Ebdon said that many universities already run "excellent" outreach programmes, but these are usually aimed at 14-to-19-year-olds.

"While work with teenagers is very useful and should continue, we are keen to see more long-term schemes that start at a younger age and persist through the school career," he said.

"It's crucial that outreach encompasses those who are not yet on the pathway to higher education as well as those who are already considering it.

"We would also like to see more outreach for adults, such as schemes involving employers, because it's never too late to benefit from the life-changing experience of higher education."

OFFA's document backs universities using "contextual data" when deciding who to make offers to.

Contextual data can give institutions more information about a potential student's circumstances and background, and in some cases candidates are asked to gain slightly lower grades to win a place on a course.

"Many institutions already use contextual information to help identify individuals with potential from under-represented groups.

"Some use this data to ensure that such applicants are made offers and some make slightly lower offers than they would normally - for example, levels of average attainment in an applicant's school, or other indicators of disadvantage.

"Some also use it to better inform their targeting and outreach activities.

"We agree that the use of contextual information is a valid and appropriate way for you to broaden access while maintaining excellence.

"We welcome and encourage the use of contextual information so long as you consider individuals on their merits and your procedures."

Professor Eric Thomas, president of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said: "There are already many good examples of universities, schools and colleges working together to raise aspirations and academic attainment.

"We agree that this awareness-raising should start early in the education process and that young people need better advice and information about higher education. It is important that this outreach work is extended to adults and mature learners as well."

Higher education is still an "exceptionally good investment" for both individuals and the taxpayer, a separate report concluded on Thursday.

The study, by the million+ university group and London Economics, found that a graduate can expect to earn an average of £115,000 more over their working life, compared to someone without a degree.

And a student who holds a masters degree can expect to earn an average of £59,000 more than someone with a degree, it says.

The study, which looked at the rates of return from investing in higher education, also reveals that the net benefit to the government of financing a student to complete a degree is £94,000.

The study warns that any fall in student numbers could have "significant and measurable long term consequences for the UK".

"If it transpires that 30,000 fewer undergraduates enrolled in higher education in 2012/13 then this would lead to an equivalent loss of £6.6 billion to the UK economy over the next 40 years," the study said.

Tuition fees were tripled last autumn, with English students now paying up to £9,000 per year.

Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have all put measures in place to subsidise their students' fees.

Responding to the OFFA guidance, Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents a group of leading universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, said: "We are pleased that OFFA recognises - as we have long said - that the main causes of under-representation of disadvantaged groups include lower attainment at school, and a lack of advice on subject choices.

"We also agree that outreach, including early outreach in schools, is vital. That's why many of our members already sponsor academies and work directly with schools, including with pupils from a young age or where there is little history of young people progressing to leading universities."

Universities Minister David Willetts said: "Universities and colleges will be investing over £672m on increasing the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2016/17 - up from just over £400 million in 2011/12. It is vital that this investment is targeted effectively and translates into results."

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