Belfast Telegraph

Strategy to boost university access

Those most able but least likely to attend university in Northern Ireland will be targeted through a new Government strategy to improve access to higher education.

Outreach initiatives in deprived areas will be a key feature of the plan to encourage young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to continue in learning, Danny Kennedy told the assembly.

The employment and learning minister said it is vital higher education is not for the select few as he launched a public consultation on proposals for widening participation

The strategy is being formulated as the debate on potential hikes to student fees in Northern Ireland continues to rumble on.

While the minister stressed that any rise would not be as high as the level in England and Wales, he said he does not want the issue to overshadow Monday's Assembly discussion on the participation strategy, adding: "That debate is for another day."

On the regional strategy, the minister said: "Widening participation in higher education by students from those groups which are currently under-represented, in particular students from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities and learning difficulties, is one of my department's key strategic goals.

"My department's vision for widening participation is that any qualified individual in Northern Ireland should be able to gain access to higher education that is right for them, irrespective of their personal or social background."

At around 50%, Northern Ireland already has the highest participation rate in higher education in the UK but Mr Kennedy said there remain some "stubborn pockets of under-representation" that he hopes the strategy can reach.

"I am committed to developing a new approach to widening participation in Northern Ireland based on a future vision of the sector in which the people who are most able but least likely to participate in higher education are given every encouragement and support to achieve the necessary qualifications to apply to, and to benefit from, the higher education that is right for them."

He made clear the strategy, which is due to be published in the summer, will not include quotas or the lowering of academic standards.

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