Regardless of your background, access to prestigious Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) has traditionally been a relatively straight forward scenario: you meet the entry requirements, or you don’t. However, things are changing in recognition of the argument that achieving, let’s say, A-level grades BBB in the context of social or economic disadvantage and/or a significantly disrupted education is as good an indicator of academic potential as meeting entry requirements (usually somewhere in the AAB-AAA region) in the absence of disadvantage. So-called contextual offers attempt to look beyond A-level score as a ‘gold standard’ of educational promise and take a more holistic view of the applicant. Indeed, most HEIs already have some sort of contextual admissions process (Sundorph, Vasilev and Coiffait, 2017). 

By lowering entry tariffs for disadvantaged applicants, universities are casting the net a little bit wider, but is there a danger that in doing so they are unintentionally setting some students up to fail? Analysis from Boliver, Gorard & Siddiqui (2019) sheds some light. They used data from the National Pupil Database and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to plot longitudinal student outcomes, reporting that the probability of degree completion at a higher tariff university does not vary hugely by grades on entry: learners with A-levels AAB had an 88% degree completion rate, compared to 80% for entrants with A-Levels BCC. A similar analysis showed that learners with entry grades AAB received a good degree (first or 2:1) 76% of the time, compared with 46% for learners with entry grades BCC. This suggests that high tariff universities can substantially reduce entry requirements and still expect positive outcomes for all students, however, additional support is required to help lower grade entrants achieve the highest degree awards at the same rate as their peers.

The reality is that the social forces that shape educational performance do not simply disappear at the point of access. For instance, ‘non-traditional’ students often find University life to be an intimidating and unfamiliar environment. For Universities to truly promote equality of opportunity, they must continue to find ways to support a diverse student body across the student lifecycle, from pre-entry to degree award and beyond. This is consistent with Mountford-Zimdars, Moore and Graham’s (2016) assessment that contextual admissions need to form part of a wider student lifecycle approach which facilitates student success in order to truly be fairer.

One way in which selective HEIs could make contextual offers as well as support the ongoing prospects for students is through foundation year offerings. Often referred to as year 0 or 1+3 courses, foundation programmes are essentially year-long preparatory courses offering a steady trajectory into full undergraduate degree programmes. The year provides additional time to develop academic skills and acclimatise to HE. Foundation programmes are already prevalent in the sector as an alternative offering for applicants who miss out on entry grades. A quick peruse of the UCAS website reveals 4607 foundation courses on offer from 150 providers with 266 of those coming from the 24 research intensive Russell Group universities. Among these, there is an increasing number of highly selective HEI’s, including Oxford and Cambridge University, who are designing programmes to target disadvantaged students with high potential with a view to supporting their progression into full degree programmes.

Recent research by O’Sullivan, Bird, Robson, and Winters (2019) provides some insight into the benefits that this sort of foundation course could offer. They conducted a year longitudinal comparative case study to evaluate student experiences of two foundation pathways (one at Oxford University, the other Trinity College Dublin) and one contextual admissions route (Trinity College Dublin). Foundation year student’s sense of belonging significantly increased between pre-entry and end of year 1, whereas contextual offer students remained the same (with a non-significant decrease). Qualitative data collected in the study revealed that, as well as an increased sense of belonging, foundation year students expressed increased confidence in their ability to succeed academically on the basis of developing their knowledge and skills, forming positive social networks as well as reassuring long-term relationships with tutors. In contrast, contextual offer students reported feeling inferior and intimidated by direct-entry students. They felt like their peers knew more than them and at the end of year one there was a sense of being unsure about their academic capability. Overall, it seemed as though foundation year students were enabled to adopt a comfortable academic identity whereas contextual offer students were not, often experiencing feelings of inadequacy and imposterism.

There is some evidence that foundation learners go on to achieve as well as their peers. Sanders and Daly (2013) found no significant difference in level 4 performance between foundation students and direct entrant students on 3 foundation pathways: UWE: Science, Cardiff Met: Health Sciences and Cardiff Met: Social Sciences. Similarly, a review of King’s College London’s Extended Medical Degree Programme (EMDP) concluded that, with additional support, students admitted with A-level grades of CCC could thrive on medical degrees (Garlick and Brown, 2008).

Crucial to EMDP students reaching their potential is the programme’s capacity to reduce the uncertainty that students feel about their place in higher education. The programme includes an induction week, EMDP student mentors, dedicated rooms for studying and socialising, small group teaching sessions, personalised learning programmes, an annual prize giving ceremony, and (optional) informal discussions on cultural values and differences. Exams at the end of the first year are formative to give students two years to adjust before any meaningful assessment.

Reading this, you may well be thinking to yourself, ‘this is all sounds promising, but how and who will fund an additional year of study’. Well, reader, I will level with you. University philanthropy is unlikely, for the most part, to extend to fully funding a foundation course year on year. Most existing courses are funded by full £9,250 tuition fees, often accompanied by piecemeal financial support. The truth is therefore that foundation learners would have to take on more student debt to undertake the course. However, my response would be to remember which prospective students we have in mind here: disadvantaged or disrupted learners with high potential, probably with A-levels (or equivalents) in region of BBB – CCC. Assuming they wish to go to university, they have a choice: to undertake a 4-year course at a highly selective university or direct entry to a 3-year course at a less selective provider. It would be for them to make the cost / benefit analysis to decide whether the 4-year programme comes with a substantial enough premium to outweigh the additional debt burden. It would be for the provider to design a programme – with the kind of tailored, holistic, ‘wrap around’ support discussed – that is ‘value for money’ in this sense – and can communicate this effectively. At least the foundation option offers a slightly more nuanced scenario than: you meet the entry requirements, or you don’t.

Boliver, V., Gorard, S. and Siddiqui, N., 2019. Using contextual data to widen access to higher education. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, pp.1-7.

Garlick, P.B. and Brown, G., 2008. Widening participation in medicine. Bmj, 336(7653), pp.1111-1113.

Mountford-Zimdars, A., Moore, J. and Graham, J., 2016. Is contextualised admission the answer to the access challenge?. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, 20(4), pp.143-150.

O’Sullivan, K., Bird, N., Robson, J. and Winters, N., 2019. Academic identity, confidence and belonging: The role of contextualised admissions and foundation years in higher education. British Educational Research Journal, 45(3), pp.554-575.

Sanders, L. and Daly, A., 2013. Building a successful foundation?: The role of Foundation Year courses in preparing students for their degree. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 14(1), pp.42-56.

Sundorph, E., Vasilev, D. and Coiffait, L., 2017. Joining the elite: How top universities can enhance social mobility.