Graham Virgo chairs a project board for the transition year programme as well as a separate bridging programme, a three-week course for students to receive additional support between their A-level results and matriculating at CambridgeLouis Ashworth

“The hurdles that people from low incomes face compared to people who are more comfortably off are known and measurable. Either we can say that, ‘we are not going to help you at all’, or you say, ‘we will try and adjust for that’”, said Alan Rusbridger, the principal of Lady Margaret Hall Oxford, in an interview with Varsity. In 2016, Rusbridger’s college introduced a foundational programme to bring educationally-disadvantaged students ‘up to speed’ — in 2021, Cambridge is set to adopt a similar scheme across the collegiate University, in one of its most dramatic efforts in recent years to widen access.

“We know that there are some students who have suffered educational disadvantage”, explained Graham Virgo, Cambridge’s senior pro-vice-chancellor for education, adding, “the aim of the transition year is to say to those students, ‘look, as things are, you’re probably not going to make our offer but we can see potential, so come on our transition year and we hope that year will bridge the gap’.”

The University’s announcement of the foundational programme, consisting of a three week bridging programme as well as a full transition year, comes amid lasting criticism of its proportionately low intakes of students from state comprehensive and low-income backgrounds.

In its 2017 admissions cycle, 26.5% of students admitted to Cambridge hailed from state comprehensive schools, while 4.5% of students were from regions with the lowest participation rates in higher education. Along with the foundational programme, the University has plans to reform its existing bursary system by expanding funding to students in the ‘squeezed middle’ as well as offering debt-free education to its poorest students.

Cambridge's 2017 admissions cycle, by school type

Funding its ambitious foundational year project could prove challenging, admitted Virgo to Varsity: “Frankly, we need philanthropy to enable us to deliver this”. The programme, as well as changes to the Cambridge Bursary Scheme, are expected to be funded by the University’s newly-announced campaign to raise at least £500m in philanthropic donations over the next six years for student support initiatives.

In a recent article in Prospect Magazine, Rusbridger outlined the cost-benefits of Lady Margaret Hall’s foundation year, which “for 12 students costs £230,000” in comparison to the £17m currently spent on access and other forms of support through outreach programs. LMH’s foundation year funds come exclusively from alumni donations, but if the scheme were to be expanded to other colleges, Rusbridger said that the College’s programme costs would be cut by nearly half.

Foundation years at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) have been cited as models the University of Cambridge might use in the development of their own transition year.  However, unlike similar schemes at LMH and Trinity College Dublin, Virgo revealed Cambridge’s intention of offering transition year participants a “quality-assured award” upon completion of the programme.

Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford introduced a foundation programme in 2016, the first Oxbridge college to do soTJATHAURC

In Prospect, Rusbridger discussed the importance of expanding Oxbridge access, saying: “Focus groups around the country believed...academic ability wasn’t thought to be enough to get in [to Oxford]: people thought family connections or money were also needed.”

Speaking to Varsity, Rusbridger said that from experience with the programme at LMH, the foundation year, “is one of the the best ways of actually getting people through the door as opposed to just doing outreach and trying to make up the gap that I think we can all agree does exist.”

Virgo added that the University intends to “[find] innovative ways of engaging” with potential applicants, in order “to capture students who may not be thinking about Cambridge, or even university”.

Advertising the transition year scheme will be a concerted effort, involving colleges and a “well developed social media campaign”. He is keen on “using people like Stormzy. We will need to discuss it with him but I can imagine this being the sort of thing him and others would be willing to assist us with.” In August, award-winning grime musician Stormzy launched a scholarship to fully fund degree costs for four black students at Cambridge.

“The University will have to stress that students applying to the foundation course are not at all inferior”

Beyond funding, another major concern for Cambridge will be to ensure the full integration of transition students into university and college life. While Virgo insisted that transition year students “will join a college in exactly the same way as everybody else”, he noted that the University is “so conscious” of incoming students feeling less worthy than their peers.

“The worst thing would be if any student on a transition year were marked as being inferior. It is not a sign of inferiority at all; it is just a sign that, [because of] where you’ve come from, you haven’t had the advantages of many Cambridge students. We are doing our bit to try and give you those advantages now as part of this year.”

CUSU Access & Funding Officer Shadab Ahmed echoed these concerns, telling Varsity that, while he is “positive and optimistic” about the programme, “the University will have to stress that students applying to the foundation course are not at all inferior.”

Ellie Wood, the General Secretary of Class Act, a Cambridge community for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, said that she sees it as “imperative that transition year students are fully integrated into college and university life, like any other student studying another course.”

Wood noted her concern that if students are offered a transitional programme spot instead of being accepted into regular entry, it “might give an impression (however wrong that might be) that they are not good enough”. She added, “we would hope that the idea of a transition year would be normalised… such that the issue of imposter syndrome would be combatted.”

Rusbridger recognised obstacles that LMH faced in integrating their first cohort of foundation year students, commenting, “I think some of the other students didn’t initially know who these students were, or what a foundation year was, so there was a little bit of hesitancy about where they fitted in the college”, but noted that the JCR has worked to “make sure they just feel like ordinary members of the common room.”

“[It] demonstrates to students from under-represented backgrounds that we take them seriously”

In contrast to LMH’s college-based foundation year, Cambridge intends for its transitional year programme to be rolled out throughout the entire collegiate University.

Ahmed argued that the foundational programme “won’t solve the issue of encouraging people to apply to the University in the first place, which is something the University will have to continue doing as outreach work to ensure people apply for even a foundation year.”

However, Rusbridger and Sir Ivor Crewe, master of Oxford’s University College (Univ), were more optimistic, reporting increased diversity in their respective colleges following their own access schemes’ introductions.

Rusbridger noted that “the number of applications from state schools has jumped by nearly 40% in two years” since their foundation year’s introduction. At LMH, seven out of 10 students from the first cohort and nine out of 11 from the second passed the foundation year and matriculated to Oxford. Rusbridger told Varsity the other students had offers from Russell group universities, meaning “there is 100% record of them staying on course and 100% record of them getting Russell group offers.”

Crewe said that University College’s ‘Opportunity Programme’, a three-week summer bridging programme, “demonstrates to students from under-represented backgrounds that we take them seriously, that we want them to apply to us, and that we've got the confidence in them to make them an offer without lowering standards and without asking them to jump through hoops.”


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Virgo chairs a project board for the transition year programme and a separate bridging programme, a three-week course for students who, after receiving their A-Level results, “haven’t made their offer and, through the contextual data, are students who are meeting the widening participation criteria.”

Wood told Varsity that, in addition to a transition year, “there needs to be greater support for disadvantaged students who either just miss their offers or would, due to circumstance, not get the grades of a typical offer.”

She expressed her belief that the University should be “giving contextual offers” and offering “other support [that] could take the form of greater academic support between receiving an offer and A-Level exams, and prior to beginning at Cambridge.” In its admissions process, Cambridge uses contextual data on socio-economic characteristics, school type, and individual circumstances to more holistically assess applicants, but has consistently resisted systematically lowering its standard A-level offers.

Speaking of his personal connection to the programme, Virgo said that “as somebody who was educated in a massive state school myself where hardly anybody went to Oxford or Cambridge, I know what it’s like. To have the courage to apply when you are just not used to what Oxford or Cambridge means, you have this image of it.”

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