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Monday, 19 June, 2000, 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK
Leg-up for poor students
Newcastle University admin block
Newcastle: Trying to widen access
Newcastle University has been defending a scheme by which it admits students with lower A-level grades than normally required - if they come from poorer areas.

There's absolutely no sense in which these students are, as it were, deliberately disadvantaging somebody else

Dr Madeleine Atkins, Newcastle University
The government-funded Partners Programme seeks to offer specially-created university places to pupils from families with no tradition of going to university.

Newcastle rejects suggestions that it creates a two-tier applications system, offering places to students with relatively poor A-level points scores while better-qualified candidates perhaps do not get in.

It denies "dumbing down" its entry requirements in the drive to recruit more students.

The UK's universities can bid for extra money to try to attract students from "low participation" postcode areas.

The north-east of England generally does badly in this respect and Newcastle's scheme is in part designed to assist the region's economic regeneration by raising the numbers of those with higher education qualifications.

Family backgrounds

It involves working with about 40 state schools and colleges to identify students who have potential, but who - because of their backgrounds - lack confidence in applying to universities.

"These tend to be young people with no prior experience of higher education in their family, often living in areas of social and economic disadvantage," the academic responsible for the scheme, Madeleine Atkins, told BBC News Online.

Madeleine Atkins
Madeleine Atkins: Denies 'dumbing down'
Over the two years the sixth formers are in the scheme they have to do extra academic work, concentrated on two, two-week summer schools.

These involve work related to their chosen subjects, plus maths at an appropriate level. The second summer school is followed by a subject-based project marked and assessed by the university's academic staff.

If they pass the elements of the summer school and complete the programme they are given credit in the form of six A-level points which they can use if they need to as a supplement to the A-level and GNVQ results they get.

They still have to meet the university's standard offers.

Additional places

This is the first time Newcastle has run such a scheme so the outcome for the first group of 70 students is not yet known - they get their exam results in August.

Just because you are a straight-As student doesn't mean you are going to cope

Dr John Blicharski, Dundee University
Dr Atkins stresses that these places, across its range of subjects, are in addition to its 13,000 "core" places.

"We are not taking away from our existing quota," she said.

"I don't in any way believe that we are 'dumbing down'.

"The students that get these offers do extra work and are rigorously assessed for it, and the departments decide whether or not to make offers to these students in the full knowledge of all other students who have applied.

"There's absolutely no sense in which these students are, as it were, deliberately disadvantaging somebody else."

Health problems

Newcastle's scheme is new but by no means unique. Dundee University has been running an access summer school for eight years, during which time more than 500 students have benefited.

It works with schools and education authorities who put forward candidates with "degree level ability" but who are unlikely to get in through the normal applications process.

John Blicharski
John Blicharski: Low drop-out rate
Its director, John Blicharski, says 80% of the 82 on the current course are the first in their families to have gone to university.

Some are dyslexics whose condition was not diagnosed while they were at school, or people with long-term health conditions or other problems such as homelessness.

Typically they start out with only half the necessary level of academic qualifications to be accepted onto a course at Dundee.

Who benefits most?

At the end of the free 11-week summer school there is a final examination. If students complete the whole process - and 96% usually do - they are guaranteed a place in the faculty of their choice.

Once in the university, the drop-out rate for those who have been on the course is just 5%. Dundee's overall figure is about 10%. The UK average is 16%.

"Who are the students that are most likely to benefit from higher education, and how do you make that decision?" asks Dr Blicharski.

The traditional answer had been "Those students who achieve most through school".

But why then did they drop out?

"Students often do sign up for courses without really realising what they are. Often they don't realise the stresses and strains of living away from home," he said.

"Just because you are a straight-As student doesn't mean you are going to cope."

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See also:

16 Jun 00 | Education
Medicine places for poor pupils
10 May 00 | Unions 2000
Universities 'failing the poor'
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