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Students Need More Information If We Are to Tackle Education Divide

Access to education should not be dependent on who you are or where you live. It's a statement few would argue with in terms of sentiment but one many would object to as a reflection of reality.

Access to education should not be dependent on who you are or where you live. It's a statement few would argue with in terms of sentiment but one many would object to as a reflection of reality.

The truth is youngsters from most advantaged backgrounds are almost three times more likely to go to any university than those from more disadvantages areas. A report by the Independent Commission on Fees last year found that while 46.7% of 18 year olds from wealthier areas were likely to study for a degree at university, this drops to just 16.9% for those living in less well-off neighbourhoods.

Universities Minister Greg Clark has referred to "higher education black holes" - areas of the country where the potential that many students hold is never realised. There are towns and cities, where students just 'don't do' higher education. But why is this the case?

The affordability of education is a factor. With such stark differences in application levels between wealthy and poorer areas it has to be. Tuition fees and the associated debt burdens are a significant hurdle for all students but particularly for those from poorer backgrounds who may also perceive their local employment and economic prospects as limited.

Living costs present an equal, if not greater challenge. With maintenance loans no longer stretching far enough students are left turning to parents for financial support that they simply can't offer. It therefore comes as little surprise to read that according to the National Union of Students, lack of money is still the "number one reason that students drop out of education" and in many cases don't even consider entering higher education at all.

A Sutton Trust Ipsos MORI poll for the Independent Commission on Fees found that over half of adults in England support the idea that students from lower income families should be charged lower university tuition fees.

Is this the solution to higher education black holes? It might help, but it is not a miracle cure. In my view, though finance is part of the equation, another equally important issue is the lack of information reaching our young people, in terms of the options available to them.

One of the comments we hear most often from students studying online for a UK university degree - usually in their mid-twenties or thirties - is that 'going to university' was the only route to a degree ever discussed with them at school or college. So, they didn't go. Had they been told that there were alternative ways to study, they may have moved into higher education sooner.

Online distance learning, apprenticeships and increasingly bespoke corporate sponsored education programmes, have all received much greater attention in recent years - partly as a result of tuition fee changes but also due to shifting attitudes to study - but to assume that details about options such as these are always reaching those who would most benefit, is a mistake.

My suspicion is that while we have witnessed an increase in 'top down support', with government and mainstream academia more inclined to back or even introduce different learning models and routes to qualifications, 'bottom-up' awareness is still lacking. Schools and colleges have a huge role to play in ensuring students are aware of ever expanding range of higher education opportunities available to them; in many ways, they are the gatekeepers for student futures.

I believe we need to provide more support at this grassroots level to provide schools and colleges with the information and materials they need to truly advise students about ALL their options, not just one or two select pathways - pathways which might sometimes prove a deterrent to entering higher education at all.

There is a hunger for this information. At RDI, we've recently been working with a number of colleges up and down the country to help both raise awareness of such opportunities and, in a number of cases, help colleges introduce part online, blended degree courses that would otherwise be almost inaccessible to local residents.

We hear the term 'black hole' and think of a vacuum of sorts. With this in mind, higher education black holes may originate from a lack of money but it could be an information vacuum that perpetuates them. We need to do all we can to ensure that doesn't happen by supporting grassroots education in their mission to equip students, from all backgrounds, with the most comprehensive visions of their future possible.