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Foundation Years – an engine room of social mobility?

  • 17 June 2021
  • By Sal Jarvis & Jon Down

The blog this morning was contributed by Sal Jarvis, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Education at the University of Westminster and Jon Down, Director of Development at Grit Breakthrough Programmes. Grit delivers intensive personal development and coaching programmes in universities across the UK. You can find Sal on Twitter @Saljarvis.

Amid rumours of the removal of funding for Foundation Year students, a recent piece on HEPI by Chris Husbands, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, made the case for putting Foundation Year funding on a sounder footing. We concur.

As Husbands outlines, Foundation Years widen access and participation by disproportionately meeting the needs of students from marginalised and under-represented backgrounds. They provide a route to success in higher education for students who would otherwise not benefit. Properly supported, Foundation Years offer students the opportunity to immerse themselves into university life and all it can offer; they introduce students to the knowledge and attributes needed for their chosen discipline; and they build the skills and resilience needed for learning and success throughout life. If the Foundation Year is not a fit for the levelling-up agenda, then what is?

The University of Westminster and Grit Breakthrough Programmes have worked together for a number of years, with an increasing focus on Foundation Year Students. Working in partnership, we have seen the continuation rates on the Foundation Year rise, with students from marginalised and under-represented backgrounds benefitting in particular.

At Westminster, core modules are centrally taught and supported by a dedicated team, while more specialist modules are delivered by academics in the relevant School. This combines bespoke teaching and support with a sense of disciplinary belonging for students. With proper support, our experience would suggest that there is, perhaps, more opportunity to transform the social mobility prospects of young people in the Foundation Year than any other.

For example, with a little work on mindset and attitude, Aiste overcame her fears and took up a place on a summer school in Hong Kong. When she came back, she became president of a student society. For Zarah it was about finding the courage to apply for a summer job, do a good interview and being offered then post. For Aminul it was about breaking through his intense shyness and becoming active in the Students’ Union where ‘I made way more friends.’

In Grit’s work supporting student success in universities across the UK we have seen Foundation Year students who struggled at school or who had a bad experience first time round, turn a corner and throw themselves in to the university experience. Foundation Years, with the right support and encouragement, can be transformative.

As the UK’s first Polytechnic institution, the University of Westminster’s mission has always been about transforming lives and enabling students to reach their full potential, regardless of background, and then to contribute to society in ways they might not have imagined.

Working together, the University of Westminster and Grit have seen Foundation Year students go on to volunteer: in the university, at a local hospital to help with the effort against COVID-19, or in development projects abroad. Foundation Year students can be some of those who feel most strongly about giving back. As one told us, ‘I’m really grateful for everything university life has done for me.’

The right mix of support, challenge and encouragement in a Foundation Year can change the way that students think about themselves. They start to see their own potential. They emerge as leaders: course reps, school reps and leaders of student societies, then student ambassadors and participants on leadership programmes.

Some Foundation Year students might start from a position of ‘imposter phenomenon’- not feeling they deserve their place or fit in at university. But we see them transform. They become driven, determined and motivated, battling against the odds: ‘I always sit at the front of class, in a lecture, in a seminar. I try and sit at the front in everyday life. That says that I’m here. I’ve got something to say and I’m going to contribute.’

Of course, it’s not always easy. Many Foundation Year students arrive short on confidence and struggle to feel they belong. As one told us, ‘I still had that voice in my head saying, “This isn’t you. You’re not good enough for this.” But then I had Grit in my ear saying “You can do it. You have it in you. Don’t limit yourself.”’

A well supported Foundation Year can enable students to break down barriers. At the start they will not necessarily have the same access to networks and opportunities as students from more privileged backgrounds. But with support, confidence grows ‘I got the self-assurance to network. I’ve become so much more outgoing.’ And: ‘I had the courage to do the things I was afraid of. I don’t say “I can’t do it” or “I’m not sure” anymore. I say, “I can and I WILL do it.”’

So, those questioning the funding of Foundation Year students might do well to remember that we are talking about those whose aspiration is to become the entrepreneurs, the business leaders and the decision makers of tomorrow. They are the personification of social mobility, of levelling up. As the students themselves tell us, ‘The bar has been raised. Permanently.

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