Dr John Blicharski

ENTERING university as an individual from a “non-traditional” background is a milestone achievement, no matter what you choose to study.

For young people who dream of studying highly competitive subjects like architecture or medicine, however, further hurdles can arise throughout the application process. They may well have the ability to study these subjects, but they need the right support around them.

For instance, applicants to medicine and dentistry must sit the University Clinical Aptitude Test. A private school pupil may be able to benefit from in-school tutoring, while those from “non-traditional” backgrounds might not be aware of the UCAT requirement, let alone have the means to pay the £60-80 fee.

Access to High Demand Professions (AHDP) is a university-led programme trying to level that playing field. It is specifically targeted to support students from less advantaged backgrounds, who have the natural aptitude but not necessarily the means or support to enter these extremely competitive professions. By helping these pupils to prepare for university, this programme transforms lives, not just of individual applicants, but also subsequent generations.

This year the Scottish Funding Council has provided additional funding of £254,211 to Scottish universities to allow AHDP to target more schools and expand their national reach.

At the University of Dundee, both branches of AHDP are run – Reach focuses on medicine, dentistry and law, while ACES concentrates on art, design and architecture. This year, ACES Tayside will target 44 schools in total and Reach Tayside 25, increasing the number of schools the projects worth with by 50 per cent.

Our project officers, Helen Hardman (ACES), Amy Stewart (Reach) and Alastair Stark (AHDP Officer) work with target pupils to provide support and guidance on the application process. This includes explore days, personal statement workshops, interview preparation, UCAT tutoring (Reach) and digital and full portfolio preparation (ACES).

As well as providing practical assistance, the officers have also created a support network for pupils from schools where admission to university – and to specific subjects in particular – is still too often seen as an unattainable goal. Building confidence and dispelling misconceptions is of the utmost importance.

Being on campus is vital. If you don’t come from a background where you’re expected to go to university, it can be difficult to believe you belong there. By giving pupils access to our campus and helping them to explore the university environment, they begin to see that higher education is within their grasp.

To some extent, AHDP is filling in where schools can’t due to competing demands, tight budgets and the complexity of university admissions. Restricted subject choices in some secondary schools can also cause difficulties for our pupils – whilst City Campus initiatives help to bridge subject gaps through providing teaching at other locations, pupils have to travel to access this. This is an added pressure that those who go to schools with a full range of classes don’t face.

To be clear, pupils’ success still rests on their own efforts. The aim of the extra support provided through AHDP is simply to ensure they have the same chance as any other student to compete for places in these subjects.

Not only does this help us progress toward the First Minister’s goal of providing every child born in Scotland with the same opportunity to study higher education, it also helps ensure the architects, doctors, dentists, lawyers and creative professionals of tomorrow reflect our increasingly diverse society.

Dr John Blicharski is Access and Participation Manager, University of Dundee