Realising Opportunities is an unprecedented collaboration of 12 leading universities promoting fair access to higher education and encouraging social mobility, for able students from under-represented groups.
Whilst considerable progress has been made within the higher education sector to widen participation, evidence detailed in the Sir Martin Harris Review 2010 clearly demonstrated that participation of disadvantaged young people accessing the most selective institutions remains low in England. For the first time 12 leading research intensive universities have come together to develop a single programme which aims to redress this imbalance; building upon their collective expertise in widening access to higher education.
Over 1000 year 12 and 13 students targeted from educationally and socially disadvantaged backgrounds have been supported so far through the programme. Successful completion results in students having their achievements recognised when applying through UCAS to any of the 12 universities involved. This recognition and the support that the programme offers sets Realising Opportunities apart from any other widening participation initiative.
The Realising Opportunities programme involves an extensive menu of events and activities across the Partnership including:
University Events: The programme is unique in that students are able to access information and support from all the Partners through a menu of events and activities, such as on-campus masterclasses and summer schools providing greater access to a range of universities across the country.
National Conference: Staff from all 12 universities launch the programme at the Conference and deliver a range of targeted workshops. Students also meet their dedicated ementor who guides them through the comprehensive online support during years 12 and 13.
Ementoring: Realising Opportunities ementors are current undergraduate students who use the secure online portal at www.realisingopportunities.ac.uk to offer their mentees individual tailored support through a programme of topics and activities designed to enhance their work in school/college and through the UCAS process. Ementors are able to give first-hand accounts of university life, especially useful when covering student finance and university preparation.
Academic Assignment: Students taking the Realising Opportunities Academic Assignment are allocated an academic tutor from one of the Partner universities who supports them through their own piece of research. This provides a real experience of higher education, an opportunity to develop academic related skills and a greater awareness of what a research intensive university can offer.
Online Study Skills Module: Developed by the University of Birmingham, this module enables students to acquire a range of skills aimed at supporting their study and transition from school to university.
The Realising Opportunities pilot, which began in September 2009, funded through Higher Education Funding Council for England, has enabled the Partnership to explore best practice models for delivering a single national compact scheme. This collaboration has led to a step-change in efforts to improve fair access and social mobility, underlined by the commitment of the partners to continue the programme beyond the pilot phase.
The Realising Opportunities programme has a robust evaluation framework designed to measure attitudinal change amongst the cohort, and to track and monitor progress through to higher education. The evaluation includes benchmarking, use of a control group, attitudinal surveys, and tracking and monitoring in partnership with UCAS.
Indications are showing that Realising Opportunities is having a demonstratable impact on students’ aspirations to apply to a research intensive university where they might not have considered this before. Student comments include:
“It has encouraged me to apply to a research intensive university; I would not have done so if it wasn’t for this programme.”
“It has helped encourage me to apply to universities that I had not previously considered due to my educational background. The programme has showed me that a student does not have to have a high financial status to succeed well in research universities”.
To date, 95% of participating year 13 students have applied through UCAS for 2011 entry, the application process for 2012 is currently underway. 58% of their applications have been made to research intensive universities. Our evaluation systems will enable the tracking and monitoring of students’ progress at university so we can ascertain the long term impact of the programme.
Engagement in ementoring has been high: between May 2010 and December 2011 Realising Opportunities students logged onto the ementoring site over 14,000 times, for an average of over 30 minutes per session. The value of this engagement is demonstrated by comments from students specifically about their ementoring experiences:
“I have someone almost guaranteed to understand what I am going through and someone who can give me real advice from a place of experience”
“My ementor has also been helpful with influencing me to manage my time in certain ways and learning different revision techniques”.
National recognition for the programme
Sir Martin Harris, Director of Fair Access in his report published in 2010, ‘What more can be done to widen access to highly selective universities?’ stated that, “Of course selective universities have had compacts with particular schools for many years. What is potentially significant about this project is that successful completion of an agreed set of academic tasks may well come to be deemed an appropriate means to fulfil (very partially of course) the admissions criteria for a set of selective universities spread widely across England.”
Dr Tessa Stone, Chief Executive of the Brightside Trust, who host the ementoring platform, underlines the success of the Realising Opportunities programme by stating “Brightside is delighted to be involved in this flagship programme. In scale and depth, Realising Opportunities is one of the most exciting and ambitious programmes we work with, and that is borne out by the fantastic engagement we are seeing between mentors and mentees. Mentees are making the most of their mentors’ experience and the resources on the site and we’re excited about the positive impact this has had”.
Most recently, the programme was awarded the Times Higher Education award for Widening Participation Initiative of the Year 2011. The awarding judges commented on the strengths of the programme, with John Widdowson, principal and chief executive of New College Durham and a member of the judging panel, stating: “This is an innovative national partnership showing evidence of real impact and great potential. The use of ementoring by current students provides a real link with prospective students and has resulted in increased application rates to targeted courses. The obvious success of the project for all concerned indicates that the partnership will be developed in the future”.