Balaaj explains how a programme from the University of Warwick has helped him realise his dreams of a degree in Economics.
For Balaaj Bhatti, university was always the plan, even if he didn’t know what or where to study.
His parents, who moved to Birmingham from Pakistan when he was four years old, had both attended university and Balaaj was confident he would follow their example.
“They had sacrificed a lot for me, but as I got older the tuition fees were on my mind – I knew my parents couldn’t fund my entire degree"
“They had sacrificed a lot for me, but as I got older the tuition fees were on my mind – I knew my parents couldn’t fund my entire degree.”
Now, Balaaj is in the first year of a BSc in Economics and Industrial Organisation at the University of Warwick. The plan has come off.
And as for the tuition fees?
Well, Warwick Scholars has helped there – but more on that later.
A different perspective
“I went to Ninestiles Academy in Acocks Green, had a great time and did well in my GCSEs,” Balaaj explained.
“But the school didn’t offer A-Levels, so I had to go elsewhere for sixth-form.”
Elsewhere turned out to be King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys, one of the UK’s 163 remaining grammar schools.
There, 98% of pupils achieved GCSE grade 5 or above in English and Maths in 2019 – as opposed to 37% at Ninestiles.
It was a different environment to what Balaaj had been used to.
“Just a huge shift in culture, behaviour and expectation levels,” he said.
“There were four of us going in together from Ninestiles, so that helped a lot, but the aspirations were very different.
“People were thinking ‘I’m going to Oxbridge’, not just ‘I want to go to uni if I can’.
“In the first two weeks, we covered eight chapters of the Maths textbook, so it prepared me really well for learning at university.”
Joining Warwick Scholars
It was at sixth-form that Balaaj first heard about Warwick Scholars, a programme from the University of Warwick that seeks to widen participation by making higher education accessible to people of all backgrounds.
“This was in Year 12; I had to apply with a personal statement and a teacher reference.”
Balaaj was eligible for Warwick Scholars because (as well as living in a local authority close to Warwick, holding home fee status, being a first-year level 3 student and achieving at least five grade 9-6 or A*-B GCSEs or equivalent) his KS4 studies had been at a ‘priority’ school and he lived in South Yardley, one of the ‘priority’ neighbourhoods identified by the programme.
Those who qualify – other criteria include having been entitled to Free School Meals within the last six years, being in the first generation in your family to attend university, or experiencing significant extenuating circumstances detrimental to your academic attainment – receive support while in further education.
“It gave me an online one-to-one tutor for my Further Maths A-Level, which helped with my exam technique and covered some of the gaps in my knowledge caused by the disruption of Covid"
“It gave me an online one-to-one tutor for my Further Maths A-Level, which helped with my exam technique and covered some of the gaps in my knowledge caused by the disruption of Covid,” Balaaj said.
Through Warwick Scholars, Balaaj received mentoring from an undergraduate student already at the University of Warwick.
“I asked her for advice on independent learning – my A-Levels were moving towards online classes because of lockdown – and about being a student, living away from home and what to expect, which was so helpful.”
And as a Warwick Scholar, Balaaj also got an extra taste of student life with a place on an online-due-to-Covid taster session for Economics at Warwick.
“That helped me make a more informed choice when the time came,” he said.
An upper hand – and lower fees
When it was time for UCAS applications, Warwick Scholars meant Balaaj was at an advantage.
Predicted to get three A* and a B – he would actually leave sixth-form with an A in Further Maths and A* grades in Economics, Maths and Physics – Balaaj could be confident he would be going to his first-choice university.
“I also applied for Oxford, LSE, UCL and the University of Birmingham, but I wanted to go to Warwick,” he explained.
“I wanted to go to Warwick. It’s prestigious, it’s close to home and the Economics programme is so highly regarded."
“It’s prestigious, it’s close to home and the Economics programme is so highly regarded.
“If you’re on Warwick Scholars, you’re guaranteed an offer up to four grades below the normal requirement; Warwick would have wanted me to have an A* and two As, but I only actually needed A, B, B.”
There were two other reasons why Warwick Scholars made such a difference to Balaaj – big reasons, too.
“I get a 50% discount on my tuition fees plus a £2,000 bursary from the programme, both for each year of my course,” he explained.
“It’s helped massively with accommodation and has allowed me to buy a new laptop; my last one was so old it was starting to overheat!
“With the financial support, it’s just a huge relief knowing I won’t be saddled with lots of debt when I graduate.”
Paying it forward
Balaaj may now be fully immersed in his studies, but he has kept time aside for no fewer than three part-time roles.
“Even before I joined the University, Warwick Scholars was emailing me with opportunities,” he said.
“I’m a ThinkHigher Ambassador and a UniGo Mentor, working in schools and with young people to raise aspirations, and also a Warwick Schools Mentor, supporting A-Level students with their personal statements and applications.
“It’s been nice to help people from underrepresented backgrounds – especially because I’ve seen both sides of it through my school and sixth-form experiences."
“It’s been nice to help people from underrepresented backgrounds – especially because I’ve seen both sides of it through my school and sixth-form experiences.”
Balaaj is currently celebrating after being accepted onto a summer internship at a FTSE 100 investment firm in London.
“I’m looking into asset management or investment banking in the financial sector for when I graduate,” he explained.
“100%, my advice to anyone who meets the criteria would be to apply to Warwick Scholars and write the best personal statement you can.
“It’s added me to this community – basically a support network.
“What speaks volumes is that you aren’t even forced to study at the University of Warwick; my friend from the programme got all the same support from it, but was free to choose to study at Imperial College London.”