With the increasing gap between advantaged and disadvantaged, the value of Higher Education has never been so pertinent. Education opens doors otherwise firmly closed to those lacking the necessary cultural and financial capital, even if the educational prerequisites are present. The massive financial implications, the cultural difference of university life and lack of adequate familial or educational support can all sway a student’s decision to not apply. This is where Realising Opportunities (RO) comes in. By targeting students from low income and low participation backgrounds, RO is on the frontline in tackling educational disadvantage. It has now expanded into a partnership of 15 universities around the country that organises events designed to encourage and support those who want to apply to university. Taking part in Realising Opportunities involves a good deal of commitment if the full benefits of the programme are to be gained.
I am well placed to speak of the benefits of Realising Opportunities based on my own personal experience. I was a Cohort 1 student during RO’s pilot phase whilst I was in sixth form. I attended a disadvantaged state school in a former mining village, indeed I am the son of a miner. Only my sister before me went to university, attending Leeds Metropolitan University. It was RO that opened my eyes to research intensive universities– they helped me to aim higher and work harder. Furthermore, I think I would have been less inclined to study away from home if I hadn’t taken part in RO because the prospect was daunting, lacking the safety net of a home-based social network. RO gave me the self-belief to apply to King’s College London to study History which was eventually where I did my BA.
RO helped me to be a more attractive applicant through the variety of experiences the programme offered, especially the Academic Assignment, which was my first taste of university-style assessment. I wrote a historical analysis of the 1984/85 Miner’s Strike and its effect on surrounding communities. Being paired with a research student from the University of York was a great experience and a good introduction into academic relationships. It was a contributing factor in my desire to go onto PhD study after my Master’s.
Whilst at King’s I was given the opportunity to be an ‘e-mentor’. This was an immensely rewarding experience that enabled me to work with college pupils struggling to find their place in the academic system; some pupils were unsure whether they should apply to a research intensive university. As an e-mentor I was able to counsel and guide students who only a year before where in my shoes; I felt it was my contribution to tackling education inequality and underachievement. As both a mentor and a former mentee, this personalised approach to widening participation at the micro-level, combined with support at the macro-level, was perhaps the most valuable experience in my academic development.
I have now since graduated from King’s College London with a First in History and am currently at the University of Sheffield doings a Master’s in Historical Research. However, I will always remember how vital RO was in facilitating the move from Post-16 to higher education and how it strengthened my skills that I then went on to use at during my university studies. .
I believe it is the robust and structural approach to widening participation that RO takes is fundamental in tackling wider socio-economic disadvantages that still too many students face today. With less than 3% of the most disadvantaged young people applying to Russell Group institutions, RO continues to increase that figure – 64% of cohort 3 applied to such institutions. As the partnership grows and expands, I have no doubt that many lives will be fundamentally altered for the better with the help of RO.