Tackling Disadvantage in Education

If we’re serious about opening up access to higher education, we need to stop ignoring the large proportion of the population who do not finish school.

Josh Greenidge left school when he was 13, with no qualifications and a reading age of seven. He was home-schooled, and eventually taught himself to read and write. He started to watch YouTube lectures to broaden his horizons, but university always seemed out of reach. 

Three years ago, at the age of 26, Josh re-entered education via a foundation year that we set up at the University of Bristol. He is now an award-winning Anthropology undergraduate and student entrepreneur.

This week, Oxford has made a splash with its announcement that it is expanding a foundation year trialled at Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) to the whole university, starting in 2021. It’s a response to stinging criticisms, including from David Lammy MP, about the failure to diversify their student body. One in four colleges in Oxford failed to admit a single black British student between 2015 and 2017.

The foundation year, alongside another new scheme called Opportunity Oxford, has the potential to make a difference. The Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) example has had positive results with a relatively small cohort. The university-wide model is similarly fully-funded and aims to offer students tailored support and study skills. 

The LMH model has also made admirable efforts to reach students who have experienced genuine and multiple disadvantage, targeting those who are state educated and looking at their socio-economic status and household income, as well as prioritising care leavers. 

But Oxford could be much bolder, as could Cambridge, who have similar plans. The LMH foundation year focuses exclusively on school-leavers and still requires very high grades. They only accept those who are within three entry grades of meeting the requirements for their subject, for example with entry for Maths requiring AAB (rather than A*A*A). 

This ignores all of those, like Josh, for whom school did not work out and who are returning later to education. So there would be no space (for example) for a young woman dropping out of the army, a single parent who may have missed some of their schooling, a young man whose had caring responsibilities for a parent, or someone who was a migrant at an earlier age and now wishes to take a degree in their forties.  

If we’re serious about opening up access across the sector, we need to stop ignoring the large proportion of the population who do not finish school in a conventional way. Nine out of ten students on the Bristol foundation year did not have any A-Levels at all. They range in age from 18 to over 70. A majority meet between 3 and 6 widening participation criteria. And 90% have gone on to gain a first-class or upper-second degree. 

There is much expertise in other parts of the sector too. The Bristol foundation year builds on a long tradition of similar courses at institutions like Leeds, Liverpool and Birkbeck. The Access to HE tradition in further education has had a transformative impact on who goes to university. Recent work by the Office for Students shows that Access courses tend to reach a much broader range of students than foundation years. Meanwhile, there are 12,000 students enrolled at an institution like London Metropolitan University, which already delivers widening participation on an institutional scale.

Foundation years always begin with relatively small numbers of students. But as we look ahead, they can stimulate the institution-level and sector-wide change that is needed. The fiftieth anniversary of the Open University this year shows that the whole sector could operate admissions without requiring conventional qualifications. After all, until 1945, entry to higher education only required six passes at GCE level. 

Our experience has taught us how transformative foundation years can be for students like Josh. It works the other way too. We hope academics in Oxford will find that the foundation year is the most rewarding teaching of their career, as it has been for us. If we bring the whole of society into the classroom, and with it all of the experience and knowledge that is available, it benefits the intellectual enquiry that is at the core of higher education. The real transformative effect of foundation years can be on universities themselves.

Josie McLellan, Tom Sperlinger and Richard Pettigrew are authors of Who Are Universities For? Re-making Higher Education (Bristol University Press, 2018).

About the Author

Josie McLellan is Professor of History at the University of Bristol. She is a social and cultural historian, with particular research interests in public history and the co-production of research with people outside the university.

Tom Sperlinger is Professor of Literature and Engaged Pedagogy at the University of Bristol, where he is currently working with the Widening Participation team to introduce flexible opportunities for adult learners across the arts, sciences and social sciences.

Richard Pettigrew is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol, with particular interests in formal epistemology and the philosophy of mathematics. He set up the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities.