Life-changing school and uni networks re-established

More than 30 regional networks aimed at encouraging outreach between schools and universities are to be established, four years after the Aimhigher initiative was scrapped.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has said it expects 200 universities and other providers to engage with 4,300 schools and colleges through the new national networks for collaborative outreach (NNCO), funded by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

From a budget of £22 million for the years 2014 to 2016, 35 regional networks will each get £240,000 with which to co-ordinate school and university partnerships. Individual institutions will also be eligible for grants to fund their own outreach activities.

In some areas, the networks will be led by existing Aimhigher groups which sought grants from schools and universities after all funding was pulled from the national support service in 2011.

Mike Thompson, who co-ordinates Aimhigher West Midlands, said the irony of the reintroduction was not lost on him.

Mr Thompson said: “Clearly, up until 2011 the agenda [of higher education support] was fairly comprehensively addressed and met through national funding, primarily through Aimhigher and other initiatives. But none of it survived deficit reduction.

“There were a whole range of arguments we made to say we should carry on the work we had been doing. We moved from a national funding model to a local one and we found that universities and schools were prepared to pay.

“That is why there is a sense of irony that three years down the line, there is a cyclical thing going on and the government, through Hefce, is trying to bring back something which was lost.”

Hefce has launched a website for schools and colleges to find their nearest network, and individual networks will run their own sites with information about outreach activity.

The investment has been welcomed by Future First, an independent charitable organisation which encourages engagement between schools and their former students.

Managing Director Alex Shapland-Howes said: “The C in NNCO will be critical for making this work as well as it can. Collaboration has to mean between universities, colleges, schools and the range of other existing stakeholders working in this area.”

It was also welcomed by the Office for Fair Access (Offa). Director professor Les Ebdon said: “The networks will enable universities and colleges to work together more closely – ensuring that they can encourage more talented people from disadvantaged backgrounds to think about the life-changing benefits higher education can bring.”