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The cracks in our foundation (year)

‘You don’t deserve to be here’. ‘That’s not a proper course’. ‘Why are you at uni?’ There is a harmful stigma surrounding students who take foundation year courses. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a student who took a foundation year. Well, not anymore. Every student I have come across who has taken a foundation year agrees there is at least some level of stigma surrounding the course. Honestly, I understand the confusion around them, but please ask us questions rather than making assumptions about the kind of student we are. The stigma takes form in both stereotypes about the difficulty of the course we take, but also about the type of person who takes the course.  

Foundation years are often misunderstood. In short, they are a preparation year for undergraduate courses. They often require lower acceptance grades: the foundation year I enrolled in required three C’s in my A Levels. Foundation year coursework and exams are very similar to degree level, but we receive a higher level of support from the faculty and our advisors. We also have to fulfil requirements to get onto our chosen undergraduate course. For me, I had to pass the year with a 2:1 in order to get onto my undergraduate English Literature course. In our eyes, we earn the right to be at university. But we are often met with confused looks and dubiousness from our flatmates, our friends, and our extended family. There is an unmistakable stigma. The negative response we receive from the majority of our peers can lead us to feel self-conscious and, for me, it has made me feel like I’ve had to prove myself in other ways.  

Once I arrived at university and moved into halls, my flat went around, and we introduced ourselves one by one. When we got around to me, I bleated, ‘Oh I’m doing English Lit with a foundation year.’ My flatmates were full of questions, ‘what on earth does that mean?’, another student asked the room, ‘Is that even a degree course?’. I resorted to belittling myself, replying ‘Oh I was an idiot during my exam season at A Level, so I didn’t get the grades I needed for the normal course, it’s just an extra year that means I can do the proper course next year.’ I was hurt inside that I was met with doubt, but I laughed it off. Looking back, I shouldn’t have felt the need to make myself small in order to hide away from the awkward questions I wasn’t prepared to answer just yet. I was constantly comparing my ‘BBC’ result to the A*’s and the A’s filling up the room. I felt smaller than my ‘BBC’. I felt like I didn’t belong in the flat, or at university and honestly, I found freshers week very isolating because of it, as if I had to prove my worth.  

I wasn’t alone in being victim to the stigma surrounding foundation years.   

Jamie Woodward, another student who took a foundation year, agreed that a stigma exists. He remarked, “I felt that as soon as someone found out that I took a foundation year, they changed the way they acted around me, that they thought I was less of a person, dumb or stupid”.  

Paige Allen commented, “Especially once you start your undergraduate course, I agree that there’s an added pressure to push yourself once you’ve taken a foundation year because we’ve worked for a whole year trying to prove we are capable of completing our degrees.”.  

One student who didn’t take a foundation year, Emily Kelly, commented, “I didn’t know what foundation years really meant at university, there’s a lot of confusion surrounding them”. And it’s fair that not all students know what they are, that’s fine. But please be considerate when asking us questions about it. We’ve worked hard. We’re not lesser people. It’s hard to meet looks of confusion and try to explain your way through it. 

In addition to feeling as if I needed to constantly prove my worth within my academic course, I was worried that I would feel out of place in my first year of my undergraduate course. There were many reasons for this: I would be a year older than my peers, I would have been at university a year already, I would no longer be living on campus, and it would be the first time I would be studying just one subject.  In all honesty, a lot of my worrying was unnecessary. My age didn’t matter at all – a lot of students take gap years or switch courses, so I felt less out of place. Secondly, I had a great group of friends surrounding me, I didn’t feel like I had to live on campus to feel included. Additionally, being at university for a year already was very helpful – I knew the library system, the layout of campus, and the ins and outs of referencing. The only negative of the foundation year is that you’re paying for another year at university, but that’s a price many of us are willing to pay so we can get an undergraduate degree. 

My foundation year made the transition from sixth form to university a lot easier, and I’m glad it has meant I have an extra year at university. UEA really is the home of the wonderful. There is a similar stigma surrounding students who get into university through clearing. Both circumstances mean that the typical entry requirements weren’t met, but also leads to students feeling like they have to make up for lower A level grades in other ways, either excelling at their degree or taking on lots of extra curriculars. To anyone who has gotten into UEA through clearing or through a foundation year – it is important to remember that the university wouldn’t allow clearing students or foundation year students on to undergraduate courses if they didn’t have faith that we would succeed and thrive. We’ve put in enough work in order to be considered able to complete full degrees, and we often get the same level of degree as our peers.  

In 2019, Dr Phillip Augar released a review, which amongst other things recommended that foundation years should be scrapped. The Augar review’s dismissal of the importance of foundation year courses came as quite a surprise. As a student who has taken a foundation year course, I advocate the importance of such courses. They provide opportunities to students who may not have done so well at their A levels, but who still strive to succeed at university. As part of my foundation year course, there were requirements in place to ensure that we would be able to keep up with our chosen undergraduate course and its academic demands. This ensured that all students were worthy of being at university. The recommendations made by the Augar review implies foundation years are a financial burden on universities, and completely ignores the fact they are extremely important in offering students a stepping-stone into higher education, especially for those who are from low-income families. Foundation years are invaluable and have helped so many students go on to have thriving university experiences.  

Don’t let how you go into university define you, you are so much more than your foundation year. Other students’ opinions shouldn’t define your university experience. Now I’m at the end of my degree, completing a foundation year hasn’t affected me nearly as much as I thought it would. Although I was not outcast by my peers, I was still met with a considerable amount of stigma, but hopefully the levels of stigma surrounding foundation years and other, less traditional, routes into higher education will lessen over time.


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25/02/2020

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Jess Barrett