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Cambridge University Foundation Year to ‘transform lives’ with new route to undergraduate study for disadvantaged students

“Students will be drawn from a range of backgrounds, the common link being that their circumstances have prevented them from realising their academic potential"

A Foundation Year offering talented students from backgrounds of educational and social disadvantage a new route to undergraduate study was launched by the University of Cambridge today (13 January 2021) – and St John’s College has signed-up to take part in the pioneering scheme.

  • One-year course offers talented students who don’t meet usual entrance requirements a new pathway to a Cambridge undergraduate degree 

  • Candidates will need equivalent of BBB at A-Level; those who have been in care and those from low income homes are among groups eligible 

  • Programme will launch as Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences pilot; students will live at Colleges and enjoy the full ‘Cambridge experience’ 

  • St John’s College is one 13 Colleges that has signed-up to take part in the pilot scheme

The one-year course – aimed at an entirely new stream of applicants who have the ability to succeed at Cambridge, but have been prevented from reaching their full potential by their circumstances – will prepare students for further learning and offer them the chance to progress straight to an undergraduate degree at Cambridge. Its launch – during the Covid-19 pandemic – comes at a time when the University’s work to forge new pathways into higher education for those groups already facing exceptional educational disadvantage has never been more pressing. 

The Foundation Year is free to students; a cornerstone £5 million gift from philanthropists Christina and Peter Dawson will fund the launch of the programme and full one-year scholarships for all students who are accepted.  

The Bridge of Sighs at St John's College

Students who have been in care, are estranged from their families, or have missed significant periods of learning because of health issues, are among the groups the Foundation Year aims to reach as they are unlikely otherwise to be able to make a competitive application to undergraduate study at Cambridge through the University’s standard admissions process.

Other possible candidates include students who have been unable to access suitable qualifications, those from low-income backgrounds, those who have suffered a close family bereavement during their secondary education, those from schools which send few students to university. Disruption from the Covid-19 pandemic is not enough alone to be a deciding factor.

Up to 50 Foundation Year students will arrive in Cambridge in the programme’s first intake in October 2022, after applying directly through UCAS by the January 2022 deadline, and undergoing interviews and assessments to identify their aptitude. Typical offers will require 120 UCAS Tariff Points, which is equivalent to BBB at A-Level. The usual Cambridge offer is at least A*AA. 

The students will study at one of the 13 Cambridge Colleges – including St John’s – participating in the pilot scheme, and will benefit from the community, support and academic stimulation this offers, which is intrinsic to the Cambridge experience.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor, said: “The launch of the Cambridge Foundation Year will open up Cambridge to a new field of candidates and transform lives. We are hugely grateful that the generosity of the Foundation Year programme’s founding benefactors, Christina and Peter Dawson, has provided the means so that students can take up this opportunity regardless of their financial situation. 

“Students will be drawn from a range of backgrounds, the common link being that their circumstances have prevented them from realising their academic potential. 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.”  

"This pioneering programme provides a new and welcome route for potential academic stars, whose schooling has been severely set back through no fault of their own, to get back on track to academic success"

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They will study an engaging and challenging multi-disciplinary curriculum in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences that will prepare them for further study in these subjects. It is anticipated that as the Foundation Year programme develops, more subjects could be added, for example STEM subjects.   

On successful completion of the programme, students will receive a recognised CertHE qualification from the University of Cambridge, and with suitable attainment can progress to degrees in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cambridge without the need to apply to the University again.

Heather Hancock, Master of St John's, said: "St John’s College is delighted to be part of the new Foundation Year. We have a long and generous tradition of supporting talented young people who have overcome all manner of challenges and disadvantage to achieve their dream of studying here. 

"This pioneering programme provides a new and welcome route for potential academic stars, whose schooling has been severely set back through no fault of their own, to get back on track to academic success. We look forward to our first Foundation Year students joining St John’s, where they will be very, very welcome.”

Students will also be supported during the programme in finding alternative university places if they do not wish to continue to undergraduate study at Cambridge, or do not meet the required level of attainment. 

Professor 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. 

“Cambridge is committed to further diversifying its student body and welcoming all those who have the ability to achieve here, regardless of background.” 

Christina Dawson said: “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.” 

The programme builds on widening participation progress made by the University in recent years, including the use of UCAS Adjustment to reconsider candidates who exceed expectations in examinations. It is expected that the Foundation Year will further increase the proportion of Cambridge students from state schools, low progression postcodes and from areas of socio-economic deprivation. 


Full information about the Cambridge Foundation Year

Published: 13/1/21

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