Project Access
Image: Project Access

Fighting for equality of educational opportunity on all fronts

Underrepresentation of BAME and non-traditional students at top Russell Group universities is a regionally entrenched problem. Attainment gaps are partly responsible for this phenomenon. The Sutton Trust have highlighted widening inequality of achievement outcomes between underprivileged English students and their privately-educated counterparts aged between 11-16. Indeed, the ‘Warwick Bubble’ is alive and well. Aspiring applicants from deprived areas in South Leamington, Solihull, Coventry and Birmingham fail to gain the requisite grades for admission as a result of under-resourced state schools.

Extremely talented pupils in under-performing comprehensives who overcome structural barriers to score highly in GCSE’s or A-Levels fall through the cracks. Self-deselection has severely limited progress on social mobility. The lack of successful applicants from similar socio-economic and BAME backgrounds at Oxbridge, Imperial or Durham Universities can foster stigmas and an inferiority complex. A deficiency in trust and confidence in abilities results in a more than 70% decrease in applications being made by disadvantaged students to elite UK institutions compared to wealthier peers. In the UK per year, 5,000 underprivileged students choose not to apply to top universities due to capped ambition.

A 2018 HEPI report noted country-wide OFS figures which recorded the University of Warwick as the 19th most unequal university in admissions of rich to poor students

Perhaps one of the most worrying statistics is that, of those who do apply, the chances of being accepted and enrolled are three times less than more affluent pupils. While the University of Warwick’s Widening Participation team devised a 2016/17 strategy that made headway in improving social mobility disparities on campus, the problem of educational inequality is far too systematic in nature for the University to work alone. A 2018 HEPI report noted country-wide OfS figures which recorded the University of Warwick as the 19th most unequal university in admissions of rich to poor students. Indeed, these structural factors have created isolation for non-traditional students, affecting mental health, well-being and learning engagement. As such, students from poorer households are far more likely to drop out of Russell Group universities. Progress is not occurring swiftly enough.

The University of Warwick is heavily investing in collaborations with schools, yielding limited success but not optimal outcomes. Outreach programmes such as UniTracks and Realising Opportunities are well-intended but need to work more closely with students who have overcome these barriers themselves. Initiatives are oriented around facilitating social mobility but will only succeed within a more comprehensive long-term solution. This was one of the main reasons why I created Project Access UK’s Midlands Hub seven weeks ago. It’s no longer enough to be dissatisfied with the status-quo. Now, I intend to play a part in the systemic change within the educational atmosphere.

This initiative began with the aim of breaking down social mobility barriers

Project Access (PA) is an award-winning non-profit ed-Tech start-up that fights inequality in higher education through harnessing student-led mentorship to widen access, encourage and enable disadvantaged students to successfully apply to the world’s best universities. This initiative began with the aim of breaking down social mobility barriers. To do this, Project Access provides a tailored mentoring system between students at top Russell Group universities and year 12/13s at schools that are unable to help their students during the application process, or from family backgrounds unable to provide financial support for professional advice concerning university applications.

Globally, more than 180 students are working part-time on PA in the Top 8 UK universities and Ivy League Colleges alongside their degrees as campus volunteers. In three years, this organisation has recruited more than 3,000 mentors, impacting 1,200 mentees annually and are active across more than 20 countries. Tackling educational inequality is only achievable if we all have a shared vision and run with it. In February 2019, the social enterprise hosted its inaugural Conference, ‘PA2019 Shaping Futures’. This event comprised of 250 people at KCL Bush House, including 70 PA Team members who journeyed from universities as far as Brown University in the US and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. We brought together industry leaders from J.P. Morgan, McKinsey & Company, UN PRI, Forbes 30u30 Social Policy CEOs and eight disruptive start-ups. Students leading the most innovative societies across the UK including ten Warwick undergraduates attended to ideate ways of solving the world’s biggest problems in Education, Impact Investing and the Future of Work in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Project Access significantly improves the socio-economic diversity of elites that graduate from top Universities and the representation of the student body itself

Project Access was founded at the University of Oxford to tackle two key problems which fundamentally prevent only passion, drive and potential determining aspiring applicant’s future. Firstly, PA strives to safeguard meritocracy in the application process by ensuring pupils’ progression to top Russell Group institutions reflect academic ability. Mentors act as a role model and are paired based on preferences of mentees (BAME/income/background), demystifying the application process by reducing the inequality of Information on UCAS, personal statements and interviews. We provide an online Knowledge Curriculum to counter the fear of the unknown or deselection. This aids underprivileged applicants’ understanding and reasserts their confidence, enabling subject exploration at A-Level to result in suitable degree choices (based on academic interest in subjects). Secondly, Project Access significantly improves the socioeconomic diversity of elites that graduate from top universities and the representation of the student body itself. Therefore, we’re able to drive long-term impact in employment opportunities of pupils who work with PA for free. Mentors only volunteer one hour per month to help applicants remotely across tech-enabled platforms, which has an exponential impact on success rates.

Since establishing the Midlands Hub of Project Access UK at the University of Warwick in January 2019, five Warwick Campus members have joined the team. We’ve also held two Mentor Trainings and Intro to PA sessions. The Warwick team has signed up more than 70 student mentors and are building a community of entrepreneurial students, passionate about levelling the admissions playing field in educational Inequality (UN SDG 4). Through facilitating peer-to-peer mentoring and mentors setting incremental objectives they utilised to gain admission, PA Midlands counters barriers to entry such as Imposter syndrome. We democratise access to the best tertiary education for underprivileged talented students, regardless of arbitrary factors like background, income or ethnicity.

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