Information, advice and guidance

What types of outreach activities and programmes can my students take part in?

Over the last five years there has been a spike in university outreach activities and programmes available for secondary schools and colleges to partake in. Careers Leads or anyone else involved in liaising with universities are no doubt bombarded by email, post and telephone about the unique offering of bespoke events at each university.

Sifting through hundreds of opportunities to work out which are beneficial for your students can be challenging. Each of these challenges will be broken down into simple steps in this article. Firstly, the importance of engaging with universities and the different types of offering will be identified. Next, the opportunities and incentives available to pre-16 and post-16 students will be explored with some specific examples throughout. The role of the school or college will also be intertwined throughout this piece. Finally there will be an overview and explanation of the typical criteria universities implement for their outreach programmes.

Why engage with universities?

Engaging with universities has never been more important or embedded into the school and college curriculum. There are multiple reasons for greater collaboration, but the implementation of The Gatsby Benchmarks to define the best career framework for schools is key. Benchmark Seven specifically focuses on the importance of encounters with Further and Higher Education institutions.  Schools are under increasing pressure to ensure that every pupil has had meaningful encounters by the time they leave school at sixteen. However, engagement with universities shouldn’t just be accomplished because of the expectation on the school set out by the benchmarks. Students need first hand experiences, not just with Higher Education, to make informed decisions. Students with a limited family history of Higher Education can be especially vulnerable to misinformation and this needs to be challenged. Engagement with universities allows students to make informed decisions and pushes students to achieve their potential. This is illustrated through research carried out by the University of Birmingham examining the impact of Year 12 summer residentials for local state schools between 2010 and 2016. The study found that of those six cohorts, totalling 604 students, 48% went onto a Russell Group university, compared to the average of 11% of state school pupils in the region1. This clearly demonstrates the impact of engagement with outreach programmes on student progression and attainment.

Different types of events and activities available

There are a variety of different activities and events that universities offer which schools and colleges can participate in. The table below illustrates the three typical sessions, providing examples and benefits of engaging with each.

Type Overvi ew Examples Benefits
Ad hoc events

> One-off events
> Usually delivered in schools or colleges
> Typically short talks or workshops
> Can be repeated to multiple groups


> 'Why University'?
> Personal statements
> Student finance and budgeting

> Exposure to Higher Education and relay reliabe information
> Builds relationships with universities (may lead to engagement with their programmes)


> Tend to be long term focused
> Students often need to apply for the programmes
> Delivered at the university campus typically

> Summer residential
> Mentoring

> Regular exposure to university for students
> Increased awareness of university
> Specific and tailored support and guidance often available to meet learners' needs
> Improvement in academic achievement


> Typically on campus but can sometimes be delivered in school or college
> Interactive sessions on a subject of interest
> Usually available from Year 9 onwards

> Masterclasses
> Big quizzes
> Laboratories and other site visits

> May help students decide if a subject is for them
> Exposure to universities and their facilities
> Little organisation needed from school or college

There are a number of ways to find out what is offered by universities. UniTasterDays, an online platform on which universities can advertise their activities and programmes, is an excellent resource for students and staff to explore the range of events available, locally and nationally, and often acts as an introduction for a school or college to a specific university running events. You can also check on the university’s outreach website (sometimes you may need to search for ‘school liaison’ or ‘student recruitment’ - a collection of links to the outreach pages of Russell Group universities can be found here).

Pre-16 opportunities

There are often misconceptions that engagement with universities prior to age 16 is not important and not needed. This is controversial and highly debated within the sector. Ultimately, non-engagement means students may be missing out on important information at an earlier stage. Students who do not have this exposure are often less likely to consider university and can make inappropriate or uninformed decisions. A common example of this is students picking the wrong Level 3 courses which impact their university options – not taking both Biology and Chemistry when interested in Medicine, for example. Engagement at pre-16 is vital for three main reasons:

> To increase awareness of university as an option
> To increase attainment and emphasis on the importance of GCSEs
> For myth-busting about university, particularly student finance

Popular programmes which incorporate the elements above are Year 10 Summer Schools. Many universities run summer schools for local, and sometimes national, students and they can range from subject specific (e.g. medical courses) to a more generic offering to allow students to explore multiple options. Universities may also offer mentoring programmes typically aimed at Year 9 or 10. Support, advice and guidance is offered on an individual basis on a number of topics from revision techniques to choosing A-Levels/BTECs in the future.

The importance of the aforementioned programmes cannot be underestimated. Schools typically nominate students who meet the set eligibility criteria (more on this later) and support their applications. Students often are chosen because they have academic merit, are a good ambassador for the school but may need a little direction and exposure to university offerings.

Post-16 opportunities

Whilst pre-16 programmes focus on attainment and providing information to students, post-16 opportunities are often linked to progression to specific universities. Events are often tailored towards supporting acquisition and development of student skills (from referencing to managing their wellbeing). However, they are geared towards students who are interested in the particular university itself. A big incentive for students participating in some of these programmes is the possibility of receiving a contextual offer as a result. A contextual offer is a reduction in the standard offer for that subject at that university. For example, the standard offer for the Medicine course at the University of Birmingham is AAA (at time of writing). A student who has successfully completed the Pathways to Birmingham programme, however, could receive an alternative offer which is typically two grades lower than the standard (if their application is successful). Other universities have their own similar access programmes, such as Access to Bristol at the University of Bristol. Access programmes can sometimes qualify participants for a particular bursary too. You can find out more about the Contextual Admissions policies and some of the bursaries available at the Russell Group of universities here on the Advancing Access website.

In addition to the programmes aforementioned, there are post-16 programmes where universities nationally work in collaboration. The Realising Opportunities programme consists of sixteen research intensive universities who work together to support students. Each university recruits local students who meet certain criteria and the university will act as their host. Students will then be exposed to all of the universities through the National Conference and other opportunities advertised. By successfully completing the programme, participants will gain access to alternative offers from the partner Realising Opportunities universities which can be up to two grades lower than the typical offer. Universities involved in this programme range from University of Exeter to the University of Birmingham to the University of Leicester.

Eligibility Criteria

We have already illustrated the range of differing activities and programmes available to students at various ages. The programmes, as opposed to activities, tend to have criteria for students applying and students will typically need to meet more than one. Every university may give different priority and focus but there is a typical consensus amongst universities of what to look for in students and criteria may include:

> Parents/guardians/carers have not attended university
> Students in households with lower incomes - Free school meals and/or pupil premium could be used as a marker for this
> Students who have refugee status, are in care or providing care
> Extenuating circumstances
> School performance data

Becoming increasingly important for a large number of universities however is young participation in Higher Education by area. “POLAR” (Participation Of Local Areas) data is collected for each ward in the country by looking at the rate of participation in Higher Education in each particular geographical area. Universities typically focus on “POLAR4” as this data is the most recent. Each postcode in the UK is given a ranking between one and five: one suggests there is little progression to university within the area with five meaning there is high progression. The Office for Students (the new Higher Education regulator for England) has set universities the challenge of improving rates of participation in the lower-ranked POLAR areas. This will help to provide greater equality in Higher Education provision across the country and increase social mobility. POLAR4 scores for all postcodes can be found online which allows students to check if they meet this criteria before applying for programmes.


Engagement with university can be complicated and overwhelming at times, particularly to those who are new to careers within their schools. It may seem that there is too much available and you simply do not know where to direct your students. This blog has hopefully helped to break down the opportunities and provide guidance of not only how to participate but to thrive with your university support for students.

Engagement with universities, as discussed, comes in many formats. From individual activities such as ad hoc talks to subject-specific focused workshops. Options are aplenty and are often very balanced in their views (not hard selling their universities to your students). These activities are excellent in providing exposure to universities and therefore can help your school or college to reach The Gatsby Benchmarks. Outreach programmes tend to take this one step further; supporting students over a longer period of time and increasing their awareness and understanding of universities, as well as providing much-needed motivation to your students to maximise their academic potential. 

Finally, at post-16 there are programmes that are designed for students who have had exposure at younger years and now know which university they want to attend. Contextual offers and scholarships are often in place to not only support students to progress to their firm university choice but also to support them financially and academically to thrive once they have entered the university. For outreach programmes there is often an eligibility criteria in place to ensure the programmes are supporting the students who need the additional support.

Ultimately the educational sector can be a tricky environment to navigate, especially when it feels that universities are competing to get access to your students. However, breaking down the offerings and deciding what is best suited to your students (activities versus programmes) can reap incredible rewards including greater insight into university life and accurate and reliable information to support academic growth and success.



  1. Barkat, S. (2019) Evaluating the impact of the Academic Enrichment Programme on widening access to selective universities: Application of the Theory of Change framework, British Educational Research Journal, 45(6):1160-1185, DOI: 10.1002/berj.3556


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