Cambridge University offers free path to entry for disadvantaged students

Newly created foundation year would admit those who would otherwise struggle to enrol

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Disadvantaged students have been offered a new and free path into Cambridge University, one of the world’s most prestigious places of higher education, through which they could progress to an undergraduate degree.

The year-long foundation course, which will admit up to 50 people for its first intake in October 2022, is aimed at those who have been in care, are estranged from their families or have missed large segments of education because of health problems, among other reasons.

Candidates could also include students from low-income backgrounds or who attended schools that don’t send many people to university.

"Students will be drawn from a range of backgrounds, the common link being that their circumstances have prevented them from realising their academic potential,” said Prof Stephen Toope, vice-chancellor of the university.

“They will benefit from our personal approach to teaching and grow in confidence and understanding, and we will benefit from them joining and further diversifying our community.”

The curriculum will initially focus on the arts, humanities and social sciences, but could be expanded to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Prof Graham Virgo, senior pro-vice-chancellor for education, said: “The university’s work to explore new ways of widening access and closing the attainment gap caused by inequality is absolutely vital at a time when those the Foundation Year is aimed at – who already face exceptional disadvantage – are likely to have felt the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic disproportionately.”

A £5 million ($6.8m) gift from philanthropists Christina and Peter Dawson means the foundation year will be free to entrants, and a typical offer for a place on the course would be equivalent to three B passes at A-Level.

Ms Dawson, who along with her husband has previously given endowments to Cambridge, said the programme was needed now more than ever.

“Indeed, the need for this Foundation Year has become ever clearer as the pandemic has exacerbated inequities and disadvantages. Peter and I are firmly committed to doing whatever we can to support Cambridge in addressing educational disadvantage in wider society, and are thrilled to have enabled the launch of such a ground-breaking and impactful programme.”

Privately educated students traditionally make up a disproportionate number of the intake at elite universities such as Cambridge, although such establishments are involved in ongoing work to attract a more diverse roll.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) students now comprise 22.1 per cent of the student population, compared to 14.5 per cent five years ago, and in Cambridge’s Autumn 2020 intake, 70 per cent of first year undergraduates came from state schools and more than a fifth from the most deprived areas of the UK.

Social mobility campaigner the Sutton Trust said the development was good news but added that it was important foundation year students did not feel isolated from the university.

"Cambridge has made considerable progress in widening access over the last 20 years,” said James Turner, its chief executive. "But substantial gaps remain, so further, more innovative steps are very welcome.”