The course director forging a new pathway to higher education

Dr Alex Pryce is the Course Director for the University’s new Foundation Year, which offers a pathway to higher education for disadvantaged students. She explains why increasing access can only be a good thing.

My parents, my uncle, all their friends — almost everyone I knew as a child was a teacher and that meant I heard a lot of ‘work talk’. They all taught in secondary schools in some of the more disadvantaged areas of East and West Belfast during the Troubles, whereas I attended a grammar school.

I was always really conscious of the contrast between my personal experience of education versus the challenges I could hear talked about over coffee in the kitchen on rainy Saturday afternoons. It made me realise how much inequality there was, and how someone’s ability to achieve academically was greatly influenced by factors outside of their control.

Despite the tremendous work of teachers across the UK, some young people have had a rocky journey. For example, they may have moved schools multiple times, been juggling caring responsibilities with schoolwork, or have suffered from a chronic medical condition that meant they missed the all-important classroom time. Family income could also be a factor — not everyone can afford educational trips — as could the school the individual attends or even the qualifications on offer there.

Often, it’s not about who the individual is but what circumstances they’ve experienced. When it comes to educational attainment, there is plenty of evidence that it’s not a level playing field out there. We know that lots of people have the potential to do really well academically but this might not have been realised at the point when they may typically be considering further education and applying to universities.

This is why we’re launching The Cambridge Foundation Year, which will provide a stepping stone into university for young people who have been disadvantaged along their educational journey.

From 2022, every autumn up to 50 students will come to Cambridge to study a one-year course in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. This course will prepare them to progress to one of eighteen undergraduate degrees at Cambridge or, if they wish, another university of their choice.

The interdisciplinary course will cover everything from traditional subjects like History and English, to less well-known subjects like Anglo Saxon, Norse and Celtic, right through to those that are typically not taught at school like Land Economy and Classics. We hope that this will give candidates the opportunity to explore areas of study that they haven’t come across before, as well as those they are more familiar with.

The programme is open to UK students of any age and is fully funded by an extremely generous founding gift from our benefactors Christina and Peter Dawson. It’s reassuring to me that the power of Cambridge is so enduring and that those with long-standing connections believe in what we have to offer here. With the support of our community there’s so much more we can achieve and make possible for the students of the future.

There’s a long-standing public policy discussion about how opening up access to universities contributes to a better functioning society and a stronger and more internationally competitive economy. But for me, it’s about more than that, it’s about having different voices in the room on a day-to-day basis.

Increasing access to Cambridge only makes Cambridge better. It means that we, as a collective, can learn from the wide variety of experiences, ideas and thoughts each person brings to the discussion. We broaden our own context. This can only be a good thing.

Coming here to work on a programme of this scale and ambition was irresistible. It’s been an honour to develop the programme and see it through each different milestone so far. What I find most exciting is that in October 2022 we will welcome the first students onto the course. I can’t wait to meet them, see them move into their College rooms and know they are here because of the Cambridge Foundation Year.

Find out more about the Cambridge Foundation Year.

Dr Alex Pryce is based in the Education Quality and Policy Office and is a Bye-Fellow of Fitzwilliam College.

This profile is part of This Cambridge Life — stories from the people that make Cambridge University unique.

Words: Charis Goodyear. Photography: Lloyd Mann.

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