Students supported by The Access Project are twice as likely to go to a top university than peers from similar backgrounds. However, as we’ve seen in recent reports it’s not only about getting in, it’s also about getting on.

Drop-out rates among disadvantaged students are significantly higher than those of their more affluent peers, and those who do graduate are significantly less likely to leave with a 1st or a 2:1, as shown in data published by the Office for Students earlier this year. Therefore, thanks to generous support from the UPP Foundation, we’ve designed a new Alumni Programme.

We’ll be able to understand the undergraduate journey of the young people who complete our in-school programme. We’ll also be supporting our alumni to help them overcome some of the most common challenges students face at university and providing a trusted bridge of support through this new stage in their lives.

University is both an exciting and challenging time for any student; it’s a time of change, a first taste of independence, and in many cases can be a culture shock. Megan is now studying at the University of Birmingham, and was on The Access Project programme while at school. Her start at university in 2017 was typical – “Being the first in my family to go to university, I didn’t know what to expect and had so many unanswered questions. University was an overwhelming experience for me, from positive emotions of excitement and happiness, to some more negative emotions of uncertainty and worry. I struggled at first to adjust to writing university-style essays, living away from home and even to find books in the library. Despite all this, The Access Project taught me to have confidence in myself, and in my ability and to reach out.”

While there is no conclusive evidence that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to feel a sense of belonging at university, we know that these students are more likely to be affected by other factors that affect their experience; studying whilst living at home, undertaking paid employment while at university and not participating in extra-curricular activities. Furthermore, financial constraints can limit students’ ability to participate fully in university life. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be employed for more than 10 hours per week while at university than their more affluent peers, and this affects the time they have left to study.

We’ve taken what we know about what affects success for students like ours and designed our programme around this knowledge. We want Access Project students to develop a sense of belonging at their institution, so we’re helping them build social networks with others who’ll be studying alongside them. Most universities have brilliant support services, but some students do not reach out to them when they need support. Our keyworker service will mean Access Project alumni can contact us if and when they need advice or guidance, and we’ll be there to listen and to point them in the right direction. Access Project students are tomorrow’s leaders, and we want to make sure they take every opportunity available so they can make the most of their potential when they complete their degrees. We will ensure our students are aware of opportunities to access and apply for work experience and internships, which are so often monopolised by their more affluent peers.

Having worked in schools running the Access Project over the past two years, I’ve had the privilege to work with incredibly talented, driven and charismatic students. I feel it’s deeply important that we help ensure they are properly supported at university, and that they can access the full, rich experience university life has to offer. Hearing Megan speak so confidently at our Get University Ready event at the start of September was a proud moment, when we launched the Alumni Programme.

When I asked Megan what she thought of our new programme, she said: “Feelings like isolation and fear of change are made better by sharing experiences and meeting peers in the same position, as well as connecting old and new Alumni students. As a student going into my second year of university, I think this would have made such a difference last year when starting my university journey.”

It’s an exciting time for students all over the country as they embark on their university journey, full of hope, excitement and trepidation. I wish all of them, and especially our Access Project students, the very best of luck. We can’t wait to hear about what these next few years hold for them.

By Jenny Paisley, Senior Alumni Officer