Today we’re announcing a new pilot project at LMH:  a Foundation Year for students from under-represented backgrounds who might otherwise not find their way into Oxford.
 
We’re intending to start it this autumn in the expectation of finding 12 exceptionally bright candidates who are interested in coming to Oxford, regardless of any obstacles they may have encountered so far in their lives.
 
Like many good ideas, this one started in a pub – a Dublin bar.
 
Last December I’d been asked to Trinity College Dublin (TCD) to speak and receive a small award. Afterwards I ended up having a pint of Guinness in the Long Hall with the academic/journalist, Elaine Byrne , and the Provost of TCD, Dr Paddy Prendergast.
 
Over the second pint we ended up talking about the problem extremely sought-after universities often have in recruiting students from diverse, or “non-traditional” backgrounds (reflecting, as we talked, about how difficult it is to get the language exactly right).
 
The problem is easily understood: nearly 20,000 young people apply for 3,200 places at Oxford. More than 45,000 UK students have AAA+ or equivalent.  Oxford has therefore raised the barrier in terms of starred A grades, while also creating its own aptitude tests and a “flagging” system to make sure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have a chance of getting at least an interview.
 
Quite an industry has sprung up to coach people on how to prepare for the assorted tests and interviews. I can’ t say whether they are at all helpful, but an Oxford preparation weekend will set you back £1,795. The question of what constitutes a “level-playing field” is a complicated one.
 
Nearly 44 per cent of those admitted to Oxford went to independent schools, compared with seven per cent of the country as a whole. But Oxford argues that independent schools produce a third of all those getting three As at A level.  There is, in other words, a problem earlier on in education. How much should a world-class university make adjustments to “correct” the wider failings of an education system?
 
 “We had that problem too,” Paddy said. “There were too many people who felt TCD was not for the likes of them. They were perfectly bright enough to study here – but were they yet ready? So we started an access programme. That was 17 years ago.”
 
The Trinity Access Programmes [TAP] took young people with obvious potential who could demonstrate they had coped with, or battled against, some form of social or economic disadvantage.  They would be admitted with slightly lower grades than would be demanded of acceptance to an undergraduate degree and given nine months of intensive tuition.
 
The students are evaluated throughout the course. More than nine out of 10 succeed in winning an undergraduate place the following year. Once admitted, they perform as well as the rest of the student cohort.   Since 1997 around 1,000 young and mature students have completed the TCD foundation course.
 
“Why don’t you come back and see for yourself?” suggested Paddy.
 
A few weeks later a group of us from LMH was back in Dublin – and given extraordinary access to the people at TAP who had made the scheme such a success – along with quite a few of the people who had progressed through it.
 
We met extraordinary young people whose lives had been transformed by education, not one of whom would have had a chance of being admitted to the university via the conventional route. Some had been through the course for young people, some for more mature students. One was now a successful solicitor, one a reader in psychology. Another was training to be a surgeon, yet another is currently president of the TCD student union and is running for the Senate.
 
This last student, Lynn Ruane, said this in her election manifesto:
 
‘As a child, I was bright and eager to learn. However, something happens to aspirational children growing up in underprivileged areas. As you move toward their teenage years, you begin to recognise that your parents and neighbours aren’t doctors or pilots and that begins to shape your idea of what is expected of you. I left school at sixteen as a young mother before returning to education via a community education project… [later] securing a place in Trinity College Dublin in 2011 through the Trinity Access Programme.”
 
The faculty members we met were also enthusiastic advocates for the scheme. One or two confessed to initial reservations, but said they had found the experience of teaching these young people deeply satisfying  - and sometimes very challenging (in an entirely good way), forcing them to rethink some fundamental ideas of how to teach.
 
My colleagues liked the TCD scheme very much. But would it work in Oxford? Here we had a stroke of good luck, in that TCD volunteered us the help of Cliona Hannon, who started the TAP scheme 17 years ago and who has overseen it ever since.
 
We collected together all the possible questions from the LMH governing body – they stretched to 11 pages – and worked through them one by one with Cliona over two days.  We have spoken to colleagues in the wider university – faculties, central administration and some other colleges - and consulted with schools.
 
We became convinced that a version of the TCD scheme could, indeed, work in Oxford.  The new vice chancellor, Louise Richardson – herself a TCD graduate [“People from my background didn’t go to Trinity”] – recently told a Washington audience that she thought the collegiate structure of Oxford was well-suited to trying such pilots. She wanted Oxford to act with “agility and generosity in trying to ensure that children with the greatest potential have the chance to study at Oxford.”
 
All but three subjects volunteered to be involved in the first year. But it would need money.  LMH is truly fortunate in having alumni who feel great loyalty to the college. Two in particular – Neil Simpkins and Michael O’Sullivan – did not hesitate in making donations to ensure that the majority of the costs of the first two years (of the four year pilot) were covered.
 
Why did they give? Neil, now a banker in New York, went to a comprehensive school in the North East. Michael, now the President of a US American clothing company, was a from a second generation Irish migrant background. Both felt strongly that LMH had been a transformative moment in their lives: they wanted others to benefit, as they had.
 
We were nearly there.  Some were surprised by the speed at which we were moving.  But virtually everyone I spoke to privately – including a good many other heads of house – conceded that something needed to be done to improve the diversity of intake at Oxford.  Prof Richardson herself acknowledged in her Washington speech that the university’s success in outreach, while extensive and well-resourced, had been “limited.”
 
There is, in fact, a great deal of concern and hard thinking going on around the university about how to address the issue of under-represented groups.  There are working parties here, breakfast groups there, consultation exercises over there.  At least one other college is planning a kind of bridging course for students who might otherwise be “near misses”.
 
As Prof Richardson said, the advantage of a collegiate system is that small-scale pilots can help us understand better “what really works.”
 
The external reaction has so far been supportive. The Minister for Higher Education, Jo Johnson, has welcomed it, as has the Director of the Office for Fair Access (OFFA), Professor Les Ebdon. One of the areas of the country linked with LMH is Haringey, whose MP David Lammy, has also spoken warmly of the pilot scheme.
 
The scheme is obviously a tiny one in the wider context or Oxford and Cambridge. But, so far as I know, it’s the first time it’s been tried in Oxbridge – and we’re fortunate that TCD has agreed to be our partner in this pilot.  You can find more details of how it will all work and how to apply at https://lmhfoundationyear.com/  
If you want to support the project please email foundation@lmh.ox.ac.uk .
 
Why LMH?  Well the college was founded in 1878 by a small committee of people who felt it simply wrong that a significant group in society – women – were excluded from an education at Oxford.  At the time, most of the wider university was unsympathetic to the experiment and, for 40 years, they refused to give women degrees. LMH politely shrugged and got on with it.
 
The parallel today is not exact.  But there are groups of young people today who are markedly under-represented at Oxford, even if it is not quite right to call them “excluded”. They are as bright, resourceful and determined as anyone who has succeeded in getting here, but many things may have conspired to stop them even considering Oxford as an option.
 
If we can devise a way of enabling such people to study at Oxford that seems to me to be entirely in keeping with LMH’s founding mission.  Wish us luck.
 

Submitted by Chris Saunders (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:41

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 10:50:13*

This a great project. I came from the sort of background where this kind of initiative could have helped more of my peers to LMH. Social mobility is so difficult at the moment and if this project can encourage diverse people to take the great opportunity of Oxford, it has the potential to become a importat force for good.

Submitted by Fiona McKenzie (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:42

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 11:32:29 *

I'm delighted at the launch of this initiative, and hope it attracts a wide-range of potential students who would never have dreamed they could benefit from an Oxford education. I was at LMH in 1975 and was very-aware of the sense of exclusion that prevailed because of the private school bias. Luckily, that did not define my experience - it too was 'transformative'.

Submitted by Rebecca Miller (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:42

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 12:23:10 *

Fantastic idea, so pleased LMH is doing this. I hope it's a great success.

Submitted by Eleanor Watts (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:43

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 12:25:07 *

About time too! Great idea. Well done.

Submitted by Kath Ford (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:43

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 12:57:23 *

Dear Alan

I think this is a fantastic initiative and very proud that LMH is the first Oxbridge college to take forward such a scheme.

Having come from the comprehensive system, I have always considered myself very fortunate to have read Human Sciences at LMH (1990); the barriers to entry for state school educated students appear to be greater than ever, and it's great to see LMH taking a lead to identify new ways to help tackle this complex issue.

Best regards
Kath Ford

Submitted by Mary Hamer (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:44

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 14:08:03 *

Dear Alan
How satisfying to see LMH making this move and drawing on the experience of TCD in order to avoid reinventing the wheel. At last Oxford joins the ranks of institutions concerned to put in place the support disadvantaged candidates are owed.
A great day for LMH!

Submitted by Alumna (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:45

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 14:58:38 *

Great idea, but I'd go further - whey don't you just do away with any entrance requirements, interviews or exams entirely? After all, it's almost impossible to tell whether an applicant has been exposed to some form of toxic social or material privilege which might give them an unfair advantage during the admission process.

I would also like to propose an intensive nine month pre-foundation course for those who feel that they might like to take the foundation year, but - because they don't have quite good enough grades to qualify as not quite good enough - just don't have the confidence.

Submitted by Lewis Purser (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:46

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 16:07:38 *

Good to see sharing of good practice. The above reminds me of the ‘Steamboat Ladies’. These women were students at the women’s
colleges of Oxford and Cambridge who, between the years 1904 and 1907, were
conferred with ‘ad eundem’ University of Dublin degrees from TCD, at a time when their own universities refused to confer degrees upon women. See http://www.wardentrinityhall.tcdlife.ie/Documents/RosaPilcher-Thesis.pdf

Submitted by Frances Carey (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:46

*this comment was originally posted on 20/04/2016 16:52:20*

A brilliant initiative. I would like to add a special plea for mature students and those who have turned to further education to try and redress opportunities missed in mainstream conventional schooling. Further education offers greater scope for social mobility than any other sector, yet is the poor relation. Look at the terrific work done by the London Working Men's College and many others besides.

Submitted by Martin Garthwaite (not verified) on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 15:47

*this comment was originally posted on 21/04/2016 10:48:36 *

Dear Alan,

This is a great idea, why it has not been done before is a mystery, but you have solved that problem.

I come from the sort of background that you are recruiting from. Solidly working class, no one in my family had been to university.

My education journey has been a bit different, graduated from the OU at 40, went on the LSE, Imperial and finally Oxford. Importantly all my studies have been part time, whilst holding down a full time job.

So I think I can add a few comments / suggestions. There is a massive social divide that seems to me to be more important than the academic ability. How do you square the circle of taking someone out of a environment that is nothing like an Oxford college and the wider university.

Once you become normalised to Oxford life becomes easier but making the transition from the East end of London is never going to be easy.

The sense of entitlement, my perception or otherwise is something that really strikes an outsider; I don't believe its academic ability that is keeping younger people away but all the baggage that is associated with Oxbridge. The question I ask myself is, why would I put myself through that?

This foundation year is a brilliant idea, I assume it is not as full on as being a 1st year undergraduate. I personally think that undergrads get a raw deal compared to post graduates.

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