It is time for the stereotype of Cambridge University as a “bastion of privilege” to be dispelled, according to the institution’s vice-chancellor, who argues that introducing a free foundation year for dozens of disadvantaged students who miss out on the required grades will help achieve that aim.

Stephen Toope used his speech to academics this week, at the start of the new academic year, to announce plans for a “transition year” for prospective students who have suffered educational challenges and who fail to meet the institution’s high entry requirements.

It is the latest solution being offered amid a heated debate over boosting diversity in the most selective and elite universities. But it is likely to be seen as a defence tactic by some critics.

Only four months ago, Cambridge and Oxford came under fire over their access plans after data revealed that some Oxbridge colleges had admitted no black British students at all in recent years.

Regardless of the motive behind the move, the scheme is likely to be widely welcomed across the sector. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds who wake up on results day to discover that they missed out on a string A*s and As will not – ​necessarily – have their dreams of Cambridge shattered.

Instead, those who received an offer in principle will be given the option to study on a foundation year at no cost. They will no longer be rejected outright because they didn’t get the required exam grades.

The theory is that once these disadvantaged students have filled in the gaps in their knowledge and are ready to embark on a degree, they can apply to Cambridge afresh, Professor Toope has said.

It is not a unique idea. Oxford college Lady Margaret Hall already has a foundation year scheme – based on a similar programme at Trinity College Dublin, introduced to widen participation. 

Even so, while all efforts to boost diversity are likely to receive a broadly positive reception, some in the sector argue that the concept of disadvantaged students from state schools needing an extra year before they can meet the Cambridge standard is patronising.

Desmond Deehan, head of Townley Grammar School, is one who takes this view. He said: “Access to Oxbridge for disadvantaged students has nothing to do with intelligence or quality of education.” He added that it is has more to do with “wealth gaming the system”.

Many students from poorer backgrounds will not benefit from post A-level schemes as they will not have applied to top universities in the first place

One of the major criticisms of the Oxbridge admissions process is the interviews, as students at private schools often benefit from more preparation for the questions than peers in the state sector. 

And Cambridge has no plan to end this tradition. In fact, potential participants in the foundation year will still have to go through an interview procedure before they are offered a place.

Increasingly, universities are using contextual admissions to take into account social backgrounds. But Cambridge will still not lower the required grades for applicants for its full degrees.

In any event, the underrepresentation of disadvantaged students at universities goes much wider than A-level grades. By sixth form it is often too late. Outreach and encouragement is needed much earlier on. Many students from poorer backgrounds will not benefit from post A-level schemes as they will not have applied to top universities in the first place. Indeed, they will not have seen it as an option.  

Moreover, for the schemes to work, students from poorer backgrounds admitted to Cambridge and other leading universities need to feel supported – both financially and pastorally – throughout their degrees. It is not enough to get them in; they need to finish the degree successfully.

So yes, Cambridge’s introduction of a foundation year is a welcome step forward. But will it solve the entrenched and complex problems around university access? We have got a long, long way to go before then.

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