Program gets thousands into university

When Ateeq-ur Rahman first arrived in Australia from Pakistan in 2011, he had very few plans after high school.

"I was new here and I didn't know anything about the education system, and university wasn't really thought about in my family," Mr Rahman, 24, said.

Two years later, he was tossing up between offers to study medical science or mining engineering at the University of Sydney or mining engineering at the University of NSW.

Mr Rahman said a workshop run by UNSW's ASPIRE outreach program he attended in 2012, when he was in year 11 at Holroyd High School, sparked his decision to go to university.

"They came to our school and told us what to expect in university, what degree to choose, how to apply," Mr Rahman said.

"They introduced me to the university environment, that was the first time I really started thinking about it. Before that I thought I'd end up going to TAFE."

Mr Rahman is now in the final year of a mining engineering degree at UNSW and has been accepted into a graduate program with a mining company in the Hunter Valley.

ASPIRE's director Ann Jardine said the number of students offered entry into university has more than doubled among schools that the workshops are run in, with a total of 5900 students gaining admission since 2010.

The program, which began as a small pilot in 2007, aims to speak to students every year from kindergarten to year 12 in schools across NSW that are recognised as educationally disadvantaged.

"In a lot of households, university is talked about and there's an unspoken expectation that you'll go, but with a lot of the students we work with, that's not necessarily the case," Dr Jardine said.

"They don't know how to get there or that it's a place that would want a student like them."

Dr Jardine said workshops for kindergarten classes begin with an informal discussion of students' hopes and dreams and end with a "mini graduation".

"They dress up in university gear and they're given a certificate and a graduation bear," Dr Jardine said. "We found that it starts conversations, schools have reported that parents will come in and say 'Our kids came home and talked to us about what university is'."

The workshops introduce parts of university culture such as the concept of lectures throughout primary school and then make links between what students are studying and which university courses and careers that can lead to.

"In year 11 and 12, we're talking more about the nuts and bolts, how to look at what they can do and things that can help them such as scholarships," Dr Jardine said.

The program also includes mentoring sessions with university students and senior staff including the vice-chancellor, and Dr Jardine said the sustained nature of the program aids its success.

"There's a student in year 12 in a rural school who has worked with us for a number of years," Dr Jardine said.

"She's gone from not knowing what her future might hold ... to working hard towards going to university and studying medicine.

"I guess we talk about planting seeds and watering them, you can't just go in once and think the job is done."

Dr Jardine said she has seen other students decide to study ATAR subjects rather than VET subjects after attending the workshops in the early years of high school, and the percentage of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are getting into university has grown to 17 per cent, from 14 per cent in 2008.

Dr Jardine was recently shortlisted for the international PLuS Alliance prize for education and research innovations.

The story Program gets thousands into university first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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