A university watchdog calls for children as young as seven to be encouraged to think about studying for a degree under new plans to create a more level playing field for universities.

Children targeted in push for equal university access

A new scheme will force institutions planning to charge students more than £6,000 in fees to complete an annual agreement setting out how they will facilitate students from deprived neighbourhoods or groups less likely to go into higher education. Currently all English universities are charging more than £6,000 in fees.

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

The Office for Fair Access (Offa) has stated that institutions should spend more time and money supporting potential mature students and suggested they consider sponsoring academies or free schools.

Under the scheme poorer students could be offered fee waivers or subsidised fees and money could be spent on outreach work to raise aspirations and achievement in schools and encourage people to apply.

The agreements will be reviewed each year and universities that fail to meet their targets on recruitment and retention will face the prospect of fines of up to £500,000 as well as losing the right to charge more than £6,000.

This is the first plan to be published by new Offa director Professor Les Ebdon, who says it is vital that universities and colleges do much more to encourage disadvantaged students to study.

Encouraging young students

Professor Ebdon suggested that targeted outreach such as "summer schools, masterclasses and mentoring" can be effective and will be encouraged.

"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 say universities must set out in their agreements the work they are doing with younger children, including those aged seven to 11 who are still at primary school.

Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard Director of charity Into University praised the measures outlined by the report but warned that the results will not be instant and require a long-term vision.

Into University works with young people from deprived backgrounds to help give them a positive attitude towards attending university.

"We plant the seeds young and support the children, you don’t wait until they are in their teens," he explained.

"By their teens people have fixed ideas, its not too late but the door is slowly closing as you approach your GCSEs."

"We try to give them an experience of university life, take them to university and partake in hands on learning, show them that its not just three more years of school."

The document says that Offa "strongly encourages" institutions to have links with schools and colleges that traditionally send few students to university or have pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The document says: "Several universities and colleges sponsor academies, free schools and trust schools, and in future, initiatives such as University Training Schools will enable institutions to play greater roles in governance and teaching in a school."

Raising awareness

The report has been met with support from the representative body Universities UK, whose president Professor Eric Thomas said:

"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."

"We support Offa’s call to focus on the evidence and evaluate what works best in terms of improving access to university."

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