From education to employment

Creating opportunities for disadvantaged students is key to inspiring the leaders of tomorrow

Sara Prowse - CEO of University Academy 92 (UA92)

At UA92, we’re implementing a deliberately different approach in everything we do in order to play our part in levelling-up; inspiring the next generation and preparing our students for long, fulfilling careers. That’s because huge inequalities still remain across this country. 

It’s actually a much bigger problem in our region than it is elsewhere in the UK, with young people from poorer households in Greater Manchester increasingly less likely than their more affluent peers to attend university. Looking at this worrying and unfair statistic from another perspective, pupils from more affluent backgrounds are more than twice as likely to go to university than their less well-off neighbours – a figure we aim to change.

UA92 is a higher education institution with the founding principles of accessibility, social mobility and inclusivity. My aspiration is to address this deepening issue by galvanising more of the Higher Education sector to adopt a similar approach to ours. Access to opportunities should never be down to postcodes or backgrounds.

Young people are much more than a statistic. They need opportunities to flourish and to be given the chance to access support which boosts their confidence and knowledge to aim high. These are the leaders of tomorrow and we, as a sector, should be doing all in our power to drive change for a fairer society with a business community which has diversity and inclusion at its heart. Social mobility is a concept we’ve all been very aware of for many years but it needs to be more than rhetoric.

There’s a long way to go to completely turn this picture around and that’s why at UA92 we’re doing everything in our power by breaking down financial barriers, unlocking access and raising aspirations amongst hard-to-reach young people. Our degree courses across business, sport, media and digital disciplines are accredited by Lancaster University and students benefit from mentors, guest lectures, projects and work experience opportunities. In addition, we have created a range of financial student support packages which go beyond traditional scholarships and government loans. These practical elements are built into every student experience and remain extremely important to myself and UA92’s co-founders. 

Initiatives include specific, targeted community outreach – where our teams work with people and groups with influence such as barbers, Imams and boxing clubs; as well as all catchment schools. This ‘grassroots’ approach is proving to be incredibly effective for us, with a year-on-year increase in applications from disadvantaged communities

Even with this important work underway, we can’t shy away from the fact that for many young people, affordability unfortunately remains a huge barrier to continuing education. So, too, is getting access and introductions to real-life work experiences and companies which can boost potential.

That’s why we’ve developed our Make It For Real initiative which gives students under 20, who were eligible for free school meals at school, a support package worth £5,000. It’s also why partnerships are a fundamental part of the UA92 strategy, offering students a clear route into industry by opening the door to leading businesses; partners include Microsoft, TalkTalk, KPMG and Manchester United. Our intention is to shape career-ready graduates who are entrepreneurial and innovative.  

The disparities that still exist in Higher Education, I believe, need to be addressed collectively by representatives of the sector alongside regional leaders, national bodies, local communities and private sector companies. At UA92, we continue to work hard to establish connections with all of these stakeholders and will continue to bang the drum for the incredible value that further opening up Higher Education has for all involved.  

Digital inclusion

Addressing digital inclusion and investing in high-quality learning which equips everyone with high level digital skills needed for the work environment, no matter their background, is also high on our agenda. We were awarded a £2m funding grant by Office for Students recently to develop a world leading digital learning academy at our UA92 campus in Old Trafford. Scheduled to open in September 2022, our Digital Academy will deliver enhanced and cutting-edge learning. 

The facility will include two specialist studios, a robotics laboratory, mobile learning studios and an immersive video environment. Fully accredited computer science degrees, degree apprenticeships and professional body certified short courses will include Dev Ops, Cloud, Linux, data science, cyber security, AR, VR and AI.

And this investment couldn’t come at a more opportune time. Manchester boasts the largest digital and creative cluster outside of London yet the region is struggling to meet employer needs in the digital skills market because of a significant skills gap. This is extremely worrying and something that I believe the Higher Education sector, alongside digital employers, can address. 

Speaking to employers, we know how much they value graduates who enter the workplace with employer-led, industry curriculums such as ours behind them. Our upcoming Digital Academy, coupled with our knowledge and drive to attract students from all backgrounds, means we are perfectly aligned to driving digital inclusion. Through this work, our aim is to fully equip students from all communities with the digital skills and confidence to succeed in their chosen careers. 

Shifting the dial and evolving higher education in a way that shapes the future prospects of graduates has to be a priority for our sector as a whole. For me and the team at UA92, it’s an exciting prospect to open up access further. But this can never be achieved in isolation. We have the knowledge, ambition and wherewithal to deliver high-quality courses and experiences which fully prepare graduates. But we also need to ensure that aspirations are effectively raised right across our country; and that barriers can always be overcome. This, and only this, will enable us to inspire the leaders of tomorrow. 

By Sara Prowse, CEO of University Academy 92 (UA92), co-founded by Lancaster University and the Class of 92. 

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