“Students are facing huge barriers to education” – Spotlight on Safia, University Access Officer

“Our students are facing huge barriers to education”.

It’s a tough time to be a young person in the UK. The university access gap is growing, rapidly, putting social mobility opportunities at risk. Students from the most under-resourced backgrounds are almost three times less likely to get into a top university when compared with more privileged peers.

But in 40 schools across the country, The Access Project is helping students transform their prospects.

“I have always had an interest in social action and supporting young people”, says Safia Rofidi, University Access Officer at The Access Project.

“Each student deserves to be believed in and encouraged to be ambitious. To enact any real change, we need the young people we work with to enter spaces and have their voices heard where they are currently underrepresented”.

Safia joined The Access Project team in September 2022. She works with pupils at Ormiston Forge Academy and Wood Green Academy, both state schools in the West Midlands. Mentors like Safia are embedded in schools to provide personalised support and coaching for pupils, delivering workshops on topics such as university applications, student finance, and career opportunities.

Low-income families facing challenges in education

University Access Officers are integral to the success of The Access Project’s mission. Most pupils on the programme qualify for pupil premium and free school meals, with many living below the poverty line. Others face significant social barriers, such as being their family’s primary caregiver or translator.

“The cost-of-living crisis and current lack of support for Sharia-compliant student finance concerns a lot of our students and their families, which often limits their aspirations”, Safia said.

“In light of the cost of living, some students are more inclined to stay at home rather than move away, which means they mightn’t apply for a more selective university further away. And if there are no universities or quality higher education providers near them at all, they are even less likely to consider university as a viable option”.

Widening access for under-resourced young people

Beyond the cost of living, students also face barriers of academic discrimination and social isolation.

“We’re constantly fighting against a narrative that devalues arts and humanities degrees”, Safia added. “Fewer students feel comfortable pursuing the subjects they love for fear of financial instability”.

“A lot of students feel like university isn’t for them. They say, ‘they aren’t people like me’ at certain universities, and they feel like they won’t fit in or find a community”.

It’s part of The Access Project’s mentoring strategy to create a positive environment where students feel safe to communicate their needs with their mentors. Working face-to-face with under-resourced students, Safia sees the impact of this work daily.

Safia tells the story of a care-experienced pupil at Hamstead Hall Academy who achieved the UNITE Foundation Scholarship, awarding them with funding for up to three years of accommodation and bills at university. With this extra financial support, Safia’s student was able to go to university and pursue their dreams of becoming a nurse.

“I feel really privileged to see the direct impact my work has on the young people I work with”, Safia added.  “I find it really fulfilling when students realise that they deserve to access universities and careers that they wouldn’t have considered when they first joined the programme”.

“It’s so rewarding when students reflect on our work together and realise just how far they’ve come”.

The Access Project is levelling the playing field. Young people are twice as likely to attend top universities after studying with us. By giving just £15, you can be part of our story and give more young people the chance to succeed.

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