Foundation year students note difficulties integrating with tripos studentsIllustration by Emily Lawson-Todd for Varsity

The foundation year course is still in its infancy, the pilot year group having graduated only last year. The fully funded course aims to help students whose circumstances would have prevented their studying at Cambridge, offering a stepping stone to propel them onto a three-year tripos. However, despite the course’s commendable aims, some of its students are experiencing significant challenges.

“Where it falls short is how it fits into the community and also how it’s set up”

Talking about the position of the foundation course within the University as a whole, Sam, whose name has been changed for anonymity, shares the difficulty foundation students face when trying to integrate with their peers. “I’ve had people who find out I’m on the foundation year and just not talk to you again, literally just walk away.” They explain how this reaction can perpetuate a feeling of imposter syndrome: “I feel like they’ve purposefully set [the course] up in a way to make it difficult so you have to prove yourself.” Moreover, Sam points out how the course’s eligibility criteria can result in prejudgments of those on the foundation course. “If people know about the course, you’re either going to be labelled as disabled, a carer, was in care, went to a really bad school, economically disadvantaged […] they’re all quite personal.” Sam tells me how one of their friends has experienced a noticeable change in how they’ve been treated since progressing onto a tripos course, demonstrating the tangible impact such prejudgments can have.

Despite the problems, Sam is keen to express the positives of the foundation year. “I think the aims of the foundation year are really commendable, and I think they have [our] best intentions at heart […] Our course director, our lecturers especially, they care for you as a person.” However, these intentions are not always achieved. “Where it falls short is how it fits into the community and also how it’s set up because it’s one of the most abstract, multidisciplinary courses in Cambridge.” The structure of the course is designed to cover a variety of topics, which are split into four streams: material, languages, data and textual. “I don’t think [it’s] very well designed […] it doesn’t feel very streamlined.” Speaking on the problems with the wide-ranging syllabus, Sam explains that “writing for so many different academic discourses and lecturers who want different things” is particularly difficult.

“It’s a great opportunity because it is a stepping stone, but it makes you question a lot about your identity”

Sam also highlights the unique emotional strain posed by the foundation course. “If you have a mental health condition, having that constant threat of not being here next year […] it’s all consuming.” Sam adds that this pressure is also exacerbated by “the disparity between colleges in wellbeing support, academic support”.  Expanding on the pressure of the course structure, Sam explains how “the fourth and fifth essay you’ll write makes up 20% of your overall course [grade]”, a pace they describe as acutely stressful. “I remember someone saying if you mess up in your first term, it’s really hard to pick yourself back up.” Asking whether this difficulty is due to a lack of support, Sam responds: “I think the support tries to be there, and I wouldn’t say the onus is on the foundation course [alone], but I would say it is on the way the course is designed.”


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When asking about the course’s future, they make one thing clear: “Obviously, no student would want this opportunity to be taken away.” However, they openly admit there is a need for re-evaluation, but are unsure how and when this change will occur. “I believe they only have funding for a certain amount of years and then they’ll re-evaluate […] it probably also relies really heavily on what grades [the pilot group] get in three years’ time.” I ask Sam whether they would have applied to the foundation year course if they knew what they do now. “I’ve never really thought of that,” they say, taking a moment before adding: “I do know, I had someone say to me the other day they would not recommend this course to their disabled friends.”

Despite the course’s downfalls, its benefits in supporting those who have faced significant obstacles on their journey to Cambridge cannot be underestimated. Sam acknowledges this, explaining: “It’s a great opportunity because it is a stepping stone, but it makes you question a lot about your identity […] it feels very raw sometimes.” They are keen to ensure this opportunity continues to improve so that both current and future students can fully benefit from it.

Responding to this interview, a University spokesperson said: “We are committed to offering students with the potential to succeed at the University the chance of a Cambridge education regardless of their background. From the announcement of the Foundation Year through to the arrival of our first students, we have emphasised the importance of the programme’s selection criteria in reaching students who might not have otherwise applied to Cambridge - immensely talented individuals who have been prevented from reaching their full potential by their circumstances. We recognise that fitting in can sometimes be a challenge, but one that can be overcome with the necessary support. Any Cambridge student can access support by speaking to their college tutor in the first instance.”