Alternative routes

Exploring Foundation Years at highly selective universities and supporting applicants

Foundation Years are increasingly common at universities in the UK. The University of Cambridge recently announced the launch of its first and existing programmes are already offered at the University of Leeds, University of Nottingham, Durham University and Lady Margaret Hall (University of Oxford). However, teachers and advisors may be less familiar with these routes into HE and be unsure how to support their students.

What is a Foundation Year?

A Foundation Year is a programme that offers a gateway to Higher Education for applicants who, for whatever reason, need an alternative route to university. Across the sector, there is a range of options but all are designed to increase access to degree study for those without the prior attainment level or subject combinations for direct entry. In some cases, Foundation Years might be targeted at particular groups such as mature students returning to education, or at international students without qualifications that would be accepted by UK universities. At Cambridge, our recently launched Foundation Year is designed to enable those who have experienced educational disadvantage or disruption a new route to study at Cambridge.

In the context of highly selective universities like the Russell Group, the lower entry requirements could be attractive to candidates with high potential and aspirations who haven’t been able to realise these yet. Foundation Years might also be beneficial for mature students who have been out of education for some time.

Across the sector, course options also vary. Some, like the new programme I work on, offer a multi-disciplinary approach to keep subject pathways open for future study. Our approach is a multi-disciplinary Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences programme which could lead to eighteen different degree courses from Law to Classics. Several other Russell Group universities have similar offerings. Other courses are specific to a certain subject and this is particularly the case for subjects with specific skills or knowledge that might not be available in all educational settings (for example some STEM subjects or subjects such as Architecture).

Regardless of the course content, all Foundation Years will provide a good introduction to learning in the university context and will help students to gain confidence in the range of skills they need to be successful. Those who undertake a Foundation Year can expect a supportive educational environment that provides a range of learning opportunities and skills as well as access to a range of undergraduate degree courses afterwards.

What does this mean for disadvantaged student access?

Foundation Years often only admit students who meet certain contextual criteria and so are very explicitly providing an alternative route into highly selective universities for applicants from under-represented groups. They sit as part of the wider access landscape of sustained engagement programmes, summer schools, contextual admissions and more.

Many universities have contextual admissions policies which involve routinely admitting disadvantaged students on to their standard degree programmes with lower exam grades than would usually be required. Such policies typically allow for a one or two grade reduction in entry requirements. However, if entry requirements are lowered further than this, there can then be a risk of students beginning courses of study which they may not succeed with as they do not have the right preparation and knowledge.

The Cambridge Foundation Year offers a generous entry grade reduction as the entry requirement of BBB (or 120 UCAS tariff points, which is also equivalent to an ABC grade profile) is four grades lower than the standard entry requirement for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences courses which is A*AA. The Foundation Year is able to bridge this larger four grade attainment gap as the additional year of study sets students up to be able to thrive later on. Research from The Sutton Trust in 2017 reflected that foundation programmes were a ‘promising means of widening access to undergraduate degree programmes’ because the ‘supported learning’ they offer can ‘help bridge a wider attainment gap than would be otherwise possible via contextual admissions’.

How can I support prospective applicants?

Many applicants will simply never have heard of Foundation Years. They might have no idea that they would be eligible and could write off highly selective institutions based on the higher entry requirements they’ve seen advertised for degree courses. Others might have negative perceptions about Foundation Years as being a less esteemed route to HE, or may not understand the difference between foundation degrees and foundation years.

As with any university choice, there are personal, academic and career factors for applicants to consider. The best support any teacher or advisor can offer to an applicant is:

> To present the option alongside all others and help them to understand this alternative route;

> To encourage them not to write opportunities off based on pre-conceived ideas;

> To help them with ascertaining if they are eligible;

> To ask them to reflect carefully on whether this would be a good route for them personally to achieve their ambitions;

Foundation Year applicants should ask themselves the following...

> Am I eligible?
Some courses have specific eligibility criteria related to socio-economic, family or educational background. Others are designed only for International students. Applicants should check university websites for the most up to date information and must not be afraid to use the contact details listed to find out more (having carefully read through the available information first, of course…).

> What are the costs for the Foundation Year and the degree which will follow?
Some courses are free and fully-funded, others charge a tuition fee that is lower than the typical tuition fee for a year of degree study, while others will charge the standard tuition fee (currently in the region of £9,250 for English applicants) for the foundation year. Students should check whether bursaries or scholarships could help with either their fees or their living costs.

> Is this a stand-alone course or is it fully integrated with the degree programme?
This can have implications for eligibility for student finance, and applicants will want to know more about their options for continuing to a degree. Progression may be automatic, but even then it will typically be contingent on performing well on the course. Alternatively, a place may not be guaranteed and students might need to re-apply through UCAS to attend that university. Linked to this, applicants might be interested to know what the leaving ‘award’ for the course is. If they left after only completing the Foundation Year, would they receive any recognised qualification?

> What will I study? And what will it be like?
As with all university study, applicants should take the time to understand the Foundation Year course itself to see if they would thrive if they were studying it. Also, they should consider the future degree course it could lead to in similar detail to be sure that it will meet their needs and expectations. More broadly, students should consider the other factors like term-length, accommodation options, the campus setting, facilities available for use and everything else. While it may seem like a shorter commitment, students should consider if they would be happy staying at the university for four or more years.

> What is the application process?
UCAS is used for many courses, but not all! Deadlines may differ, and students may need to provide additional information to prove their eligibility or interest (especially if they need to meet certain criteria to be eligible). As with all applications, students should plan so they don’t have to rush – or miss out.

Find out more

You can watch our Advancing Access webinar on the Cambridge Foundation year, delivered by Dr Alex Pryce, here.

Further information on the Cambridge Foundation Year is also available at  

If you are a teacher/advisor of a potential Foundation Year applicant, and you are unsure of how best to support them during the application process, please contact the Foundation Year team at

Advancing Access also has a free resource on Alternative routes into competitive universities


Sign in or Register to post comments

Unlock the full features
of Advancing Access

Create an account

To comment on our blog posts you need to either sign in or register an account. A free Advancing Access account will also enable you to:

>Download our full collection of CPD resources
>Take part in our online Virtual Conferences
>Keep up to date with the latest developments with our occasional emails (opt out available)