Over the last decade, thousands of students have been helped into higher education by a scheme run in Leeds. Neil Hudson reports
This year marks the tenth anniversary of a scheme, begun in Leeds and since copied across the country, which helps underprivileged students and those who have fallen on hard times, the chance to go to university or higher education.
Louise Banahene MBE is head of engagement at the University of Leeds and runs the Access to Leeds scheme.
She says: “We recognise students’ potential to succeed at university is not necessarily shown through grades alone. Based on that, we enable students to either apply themselves to Access to Leeds or we use a series of identifiers to identify them. We look at their potential and based on commitment to doing some work with a tutor at university. We then make them an offer which is two grades lower, so if it was AAA, we would offer ABB.”
When the scheme first started a decade ago, it took 30 students. Now it takes on about 1,000 a year.
Scholarships, funded by former students and other donors, are a further way in which the University supports young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Hannah Myers had her heart set on going to the University of Leeds but her hopes were dashed when her father suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralysed. The incident in 2010 changed their lives overnight.
Hannah’s mother became a full-time carer for her father and the family as a whole came to rely on Disability Living Allowance as their main source of income. It also meant Hannah had to seriously think about her choices for higher education, as her family would no longer be able to support her financially.
“My dad has had health problems for as long as I can remember, but in 2010 he had a stroke. It was a very sudden loss of mobility and speech; he was paralysed down his left side and was left unable to work.
“For me, it meant I had to look closely at my university choices. There was no way the family could support me to live away from home, so one obvious option was to stay at home, go to my local university and support myself with a part-time job.”
But Hannah, from Beverley, had set her sights on Leeds, where the International Film Festival and Hyde Park Picture House would allow her to indulge her passion for film.
“I’ve loved film since I was a child,” she says. It was while watching an Indiana Jones movie as a four-year-old that this passion was stirred. Perhaps that’s too young to be seeing exploding Nazis, but I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
The support of a donor is now allowing Hannah to throw herself into her studies at Leeds, and rather than having to take paid work, to volunteer at the beautiful old cinema in the heart of the city’s student area.
“When we got the email saying I would receive a scholarship, my mum cried. It meant so much to us. If I ever meet my donor I will just say ‘thank you’ over and over again. It will probably be quite embarrassing. It’s an amazing thing for a stranger to do, to give me this support and to allow me to go off and live my dreams.
“It’s a wonderful gift, and I intend to make the very most of it during my time at Leeds. It’s allowing me to focus on my degree and on getting the best results I possibly can. It’s the best gift you could give someone.”
Scholarships and the Access to Leeds scheme aim to improve the lives of those who would otherwise not get the chance to go to university.
Louise, 41, explained the Access programme doesn’t just come into effect for school-leavers but in fact begins working with children from the age of seven, engaging with schools to run talks, workshops and enrichment events.
Louise says: “My team role is to support progression to the university regardless of background but then also to ensure those students succeed while they are at university. That takes place in a number of different ways, working with schools, colleges and lecturers to raise aspirations, to raise awareness of higher education.
“At the end of the day, we don’t just look at exam results. Students could be in area where there is low participation, they might be looking after a child. We look at whether they want to and have the potential to come to university but also they get to work with an academic tutor and that can really boost their confidence.
“What we find is that a significant number will end up achieving above their predicted grades, which shows that for a lot of students, it’s often about confidence.”
The scheme works in part with the Into University charity, which began in 2002 in London but now has centres across the UK, including two centres in Leeds, in Beeston and Harehills.
Engagement with students typically involves things like after school homework clubs for children aged seven-18 and beyond that talks and workshops to raise awareness of the benefits of higher education.
In 2016/17, they worked with 1,049 schools and colleges reaching over 129,364 learners. They also worked with 2,477 adults returning to learning. Some 90 per cent of young people worked with (years 12-13) said they would consider applying to Leeds or other higher education institutes as a result of the programme.
She adds: “It’s really important for us to have that diverse mix of students. We work with learners from age seven. It’s enormously rewarding and incredible heartening when you hear those individual stories about learners and they have the careers they want. We have students who have gone on to be doctors and do PhDs.
“What we tend to find is, once they are at university, they perform in line with their peers.
“There’s a lot of talk about supporting students to get to university but once you get there, the support continues. It’s not about holding their hand as such but helping them network and giving them access to mentors, access activities and initiatives.”
The Access To Leeds scheme has been running for 10 years
In its first year, it helped about 30 students - now it helps about 1,000 every year
Tutors can offer university places to students two grades below normal entry requirements
They also work with schoolchildren from the age of seven to make them aware of the potential of a university education, delivering talks and holding awareness days