Mary Bownes: University seeking all kinds of talent

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EDINBURGH University was created as the “Tounis College” for the people of Edinburgh in 1583.

Although we are now an international university, one of the best in the world, we take our responsibility to the local community very seriously.

Since the early 1990s, we have been at the forefront in the UK of widening participation projects, long before it became a government policy. We seek to attract a range of students from different social, cultural and educational backgrounds, including those who come from schools or colleges where relatively few students progress to university, and those who will be the first generation in their families to become university students.

We work with local schools and communities in Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland to encourage applications and to identify the students with the best potential. Sometimes we hear talented local students say Edinburgh University “isn’t for the likes of us”. We have to work hard to challenge this perception and to empower a student to get the most out of their talent.

Key to the success of our projects is the input of current undergraduate students as role models who help deliver workshops or to go back to their former schools to debunk these preconceptions. We strongly believe that having a diverse student community here is a win-win situation, enriching the educational experience for all.

The university funds very successful local school projects such as Leaps (Lothians Equal Access Project for Schools) working in partnership with the local authorities and other universities in Edinburgh. Last year 280 local Leaps students entered degree courses at the university and we expect that they will do well here.

Advice and guidance about applying to medicine, law, vet medicine and architecture is provided through the Pathways to the Professions project. More than 3000 school students have benefitted and more than 700 pupils, ranging in school stage from S4 to S6, are currently registered with the scheme.

We also have an action plan to support care leavers into higher education; we work in local communities with adult returners through Stevenson College to provide the only part-time access course for adults in Scotland. This offers a second chance for learners who have not had the opportunity to access higher education through the traditional route. In fact, Stevenson is the largest single provider of students to the university.

We work with local youth football teams to inspire teenage boys via the Educated Pass football project and also sow the seed early through engaging local P6 and P7 primary school pupils who take part in workshops on campus, for example learning Japanese or DNA fingerprinting.

The university has been pioneering in taking an applicant’s background into consideration in our admissions policy. We recognise that applicants will have differing backgrounds and experience and that not all have had the same opportunities to demonstrate their potential.

We are aware of the financial commitment of coming to university and provide a large number of access bursaries to support students whose personal or financial circumstances may otherwise prevent them from accepting a place at Edinburgh.

Students tell us of the real difference having a bursary can make. Many of these bursaries are funded by former students who wish to give something back. More than 200 Access Bursaries will be awarded to UK students starting their undergraduate degree in 2012, with a minimum value of £1000 a year each. We are investing even more resource in bursaries for students who live in Scotland.

Edinburgh Universityn believes that the education and experience we provide can be transformational for students not only in their attainment of a degree; but also in their life chances and their employability. The performance of students who come to Edinburgh through widening projects has been excellent, as has the proportion that successfully complete their course.

We believe we are doing much to make a difference to a large number of potential students in the provision of outreach work, summer schools and mentoring schemes as well as supporting students when they come here. However, we also recognise there is much still to do, which is why widening participation is at the heart of our new four-year strategic plan, ensuring that it remains at the very top of our future agenda.

• Professor Mary Bownes is vice- principal of external engagement at Edinburgh University

COULD DO BETTER

Edinburgh University has fewer than 100 students from Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The university has around 19,000 undergraduates, with roughly a quarter from overseas.

The country’s least affluent neighbourhoods were identified using the government’s Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation. Edinburgh and Aberdeen only had around 100 students from the 20 per cent of postcodes at the bottom of the scale, while St Andrews had only 13. Dundee and Glasgow did “much better”.

The National Union of Students, which requested the statistics, described the record of the Scottish universities as “truly awful”.