'Slow progress' on uni outreach drive

Higher education - Select committee says Government is not reaching young people from deprived areas.

A major government youth PR drive been called into question by the Commons public accounts committee.

In a new report, the select committee said the Government was failing to entice young people from deprived areas to go to university, despite spending £4m on outreach campaigns.

It found that 'despite the substantial amount of expenditure, progress in widening participation has been slow', adding that 'men from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are under-represented'.

Conservative MP Edward Leigh, chair of the committee, told PRWeek: 'Talented pupils from disadvantaged areas should never miss out on a potentially life-changing university education simply because of bad or non-existent guidance and advice.'

He added government departments should get together to provide teachers with up-to-date information and said: 'Every university should engage with schools in disadvantaged areas.'

At present, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) is funding two campaigns aimed at encouraging young disadvantaged people to apply for university. They are the £1m Aimhigher Roadshow, which visits disadvantaged communities around the UK, and a wider £3m Go to University advertising and PR campaign.

A spokesman for DIUS denied that the report discredited these comms activities. He said communications to young people were more effective when undertaken on a one-to-one basis, rather than broader comms campaigns.

Since 2001, Kindred - formerly Geronimo Communications - has supported the Aimhigher campaign. It has helped organise 800 events each academic year, liaising with DIUS and the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

'I'm not going to say we're going to carry on doing it this way forever,' said the spokesman. 'You need to see everything in the context of the whole agenda.'

The committee report singled out the elite Russell Group universities, including Oxford, Cambridge amd Edinburgh, as having low numbers of poorer students.

A spokesman for The Russell Group, which recently appointed its first comms director (prweek.com, 5 January), said its universities ran a 'plethora' of schemes to reach students in poorer schools, but he downplayed the role of PR: 'It's more about raising achievement in schools - getting more disadvantaged school children to stay on and get their A-levels.'

HOW I SEE IT - Sara Render, Chief executive, Kinross + Render

The Government must communicate through parents and teachers. Most children from deprived backgrounds won't have those aspirations so we need to raise the expectations of parents and teachers.

Secondly, the Government should invest more in finding out what turns children on to going to university. There's little account taken of motivations such as fun.

Also, you need to create the expectation among those for whom it is a real possibility. Not every person can go to university and children know that. There should be more projects to find those talented children from an early age.

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