Alumni raise aspirations to participation in HE

Director of Programmes Beth Goddard discusses how alumni can support students and provide information and real world knowledge about pathways to HE.

A key area in which alumni can support current students is by providing much needed information and knowledge on a wide variety of education and career pathways. This year at Future First, we’ve supported former students from small business owners to apprentices to CEOs to revisit their old schools and colleges and share their story.

One pathway in particular that can seem full of obstacles to some state school and college students is the route to Higher Education (HE). As The Social Mobility Commission’s most recent State of the Nation report points out, even though more students from low-income families are now entering university, they are still “much less likely to do so than others”. Too often disadvantaged students still believe that university is not for people like them.

Such attitudes, and subsequently lower participation rates, tend to form in localised communities, as highlighted by the Office for Students’ research into participation by region. Alumni who have progressed through HE from schools in these areas can offer invaluable support in making informed choices. Involving relatable role models who can offer lived experience of HE and their journey to a university education should be a central pillar of any school or college curriculum on pathways, enhancing other CEIAG activities on offer and making a real difference in terms of widening participation.

But what ways can alumni be most effectively involved to help current students think HE is for them? The Russell Group believe that, alongside improving attainment, help with making informed subject choices at A level, support with application processes and raising aspirations around HE progression are three areas in which schools and colleges can better support students.

At Future First we’ve worked with alumni who have supported activities in all of these areas. Some schools run lunchtime drop in sessions for key stage four students who can attend talks based on their areas of interest and learn about the specific subjects alumni found most beneficial for their degree choice. At a recent event in South Yorkshire, two former students shared their story of entering HE as mature students, helping to illustrate that there are many pathways available to students in the future.

Alumni can also help with application processes. A school in North Wales invited a former student studying abroad to speak about how they applied to overseas universities as well as life on campus. Other schools reach out to former students for support with tailoring personal statements for specific subjects which can be an effective method of support if volunteers are not able to visit their old school in person.

In 2018-19, our partnership with eight consortia from the National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) has enabled Future First to champion alumni involvement with a focus on widening participation in areas where it is most needed, those where participation is lower than might be expected given attainment. We’ve supported schools and colleges to reach out to their former students in eight regions from Cumbria to the South West, with over 15000 people signing up to provide networks of relatable role models for current students. Former students have participated in a wealth of activities supporting NCOP outcomes such as increased knowledge of HE as well as interest and aspiration to participate, both led by Future First facilitators and also by school and NCOP staff who are fully aware of the benefits of working with alumni. As Tom Ratcliffe, neaco Project Coordinator mentions, alumni networks “support the sustainability and legacy of neaco’s work with our schools and colleges, creating connections with recent leavers, current degree-level students, post-graduates and experienced professionals.”

Alumni are perfectly placed to challenge engrained views about participation in HE. With our support, schools and colleges have also invited alumni back to participate in evenings for current students and their parents to raise aspirations and challenge common misconceptions about university level study. At Stoke High School- Ormiston Academy, former students participated in workshops to support students with low aspirations for the future and challenge misconceptions about their area. Wendy Toogood, Careers Officer, reflected on the impact of alumni involvement saying “The more I have met ex-students, the more I can see evidence that the assumption that (current students) won’t be successful is simply not true.”

Alumni are well placed to help to overcome the problem of underrepresentation of students from disadvantaged communities in our universities. Every school and college should consider how to involve such relatable role models to show current students that university study is an option for them.


Contact us to find out about Future First and how we can support your students to learn more about HE.