This blog was contributed by Oliver Price, a graduate of the University of Manchester and former Research & Editorial Assistant for the Engineering Professors’ Council. Here he discusses his experience as a Foundation Year student at the University of Manchester, where he eventually graduated with First-Class Honours in Chemical Engineering. Removing funding for Foundation Years is one of the options under consideration in the Government’s final Augar response.
I was upset to hear that the Government is considering defunding foundation courses. For me, that was the path to pursuing a career in Chemical Engineering after a bereavement threw me off-track and led me to underperform in my A levels. I would hate to think of that path now being blocked, denying people in similar situations to my own – and worse – access to STEM careers where skills are in such short supply.
Throughout my childhood, my grandfather and I were close. He filled me with curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. He taught me the importance of family. His love for his grandchildren was uncompromising – any school concert, musical, football match that I participated in, he was there. It broke my heart to learn he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The only time I ever saw tears in his eyes was when I visited in December 2014, and he told me how much he loved me. A few days later, he passed away.
This was the first time I had lost anyone I loved. I felt void of any emotion, and I couldn’t understand why. Life just seemed to lose its colour. Throughout the opening term of college, I lost the friends I’d made, I withdrew from family and I did the bare minimum to attend college classes. I was depressed. I was prescribed citalopram by the doctor and received counselling from the service at college. My sleep suffered – most nights I would be up until 3-4 in the morning, meaning I was a zombie at college. It was safe to say that my grades were plummeting.
After several months, I began to turn my life back around, but I didn’t do well enough in both my AS levels and A2 levels to secure a place on a Chemical Engineering degree which I’d decided was my goal.
On results day, I rang the University of Manchester’s clearing line to explore my options. They suggested a ‘similar’ degree in Materials Science. I wasn’t interested in a ‘similar’ degree to Chemical Engineering, but the lady was hesitant to recommend an ‘Integrated Foundation Course’. This a year-long programme where you can start on a scientific or engineering discipline of choice, subject to passing the foundation year. She said my grades were “higher” than what they typically recommend for foundation courses, but I was determined to take the path which would allow me to graduate in Chemical Engineering.
The foundation year, in much the same way as any regular degree, was covered through studying unit modules. The selection of modules studied was determined based on my degree path (Chemical Engineering). This was a great opportunity to fill gaps in my knowledge, including Physics, which I hadn’t studied at A level. One particular module was dedicated to ‘Academic Skills’, in which I was able to develop my presentation, research and report writing skills.
Alongside my studies, I was able to enjoy being away from home and starting student life. I was gaining independence, socialising and learning to provide for and look after myself. My first year was similar to freshers studying regular degree courses. The foundation year course itself was, by design, structured similarly which provided the bridge I needed.
After completing the foundation year, I moved smoothly on to my full degree course and then proceeded to graduate with a master’s degree from The University of Manchester with First-Class Honours in Chemical Engineering.
Looking back, I now recognise that the foundation year was one of three bridges available to take me across. The other choices were to re-sit my A levels and obtain the minimum entry requirements for university a second time around or continue to live at home and join an access to HE diploma in a local college. Either way, I could still have failed to cross the bridge if I still hadn’t got the grades or had been refused a place.
I believe the study-life balance I had during my foundation year was much healthier. The topics and the modules were all relevant to my degree, so it never felt I was absorbing useless information like it did for A levels. Although each module demanded plenty of private hours of study, there was enough time for social activities and to acquire life skills. The nature of integrated foundation courses taking place in the same university where I remain to study created a vital sense of immersion. I felt like a regular university student – acquiring independence, developing self-discipline and enjoying a fresh start – rather than someone struggling to deserve a place.
The foundation year also felt more forgiving. A levels were a gamble: score well in 5-6 exams and pray a tricky paper doesn’t trip you up. Each foundation year exam carried less weight and ultimately one dodgy exam wasn’t going to dictate my fate, so long as my average grade didn’t fall below the progression threshold (which, for Chemical Engineering, was 70%).
I cannot stress enough how important it was to feel less pressure when undertaking those exams. It allowed me to perform better and engage better with the material, rather than just learning facts to pass exams.
If it hadn’t have been for my foundation year, I would have lost my chance through no fault or failing of my own. Just as importantly, the nation would have lost an engineer. Each year there is a shortfall of 29,000 engineering graduates – one of the largest skills shortages across the whole economy.
We need those engineers because we are fighting an uphill battle to keep the average global temperatures below the 1.5°C threshold. We need to level up impoverished regions through sustainable innovation. I am part of the generation desperate to find the answers to combat these crises and we must cast the net as far and wide as possible into the sea of potential future leaders.
The country is crying out for a generation of highly-skilled scientists and engineers and people from diverse backgrounds, each with their own story of why life didn’t go according to plan, are crying out for opportunities and second chances. Removing foundation years would restrict access and alienate a vast range of people who want to better themselves and contribute to society.
I coordinate Nuffield Research Placements -a valuable opportunity for Year 12 students to explore the world of STEM careers-any opportunity can lead to great things.
Thanks for this – a really inspiring read.
This was a very compelling read. Your Granddad and family will have been very proud of what you went on to achieve. I have taught both sixth form (economics and business) and the same subjects at University. Even in the discipline of econ and bus, the foundation year IS most certainly a valuable pathway to some students. The opportunity of Foundation Years and Access Courses recognises that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is detrimental to both students AND the economy and society. Removal of foundation courses would, indeed, be short sighted and a step backwards at a time when the UK economy needs to be skilling and upskilling its students / potential students) as much as possible. In post-16, adult and higher education more time and thought should be given to how we open doors and build bridges to potential students from all types of qualification and backgrounds, rather than closing them down.
Thank you Oliver, you make a really powerful case very clearly.
It would be interesting and informative if you could let have an opinion about the alternative Apprenticeship route, where earning and learning can take place, especially for those who, for whatever reason, did not achieve their expected A Level, or now T Levels?