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Getting in and getting on: the experiences and outcomes of Access students entering Higher Education, in contrast with students entering with no formal academic qualifications.

David Wray, University of Northumbria, UK.

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 30th Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2000, University of Nottingham


The motivations behind this paper can be found in my own experiences of applying for a place in higher education in 1986. I applied to two Universities, and two Polytechnics, all of whose prospectuses had carried the message that applications from mature people, without formal entry qualifications, would be welcomed. As someone falling within this category, I decided to take advantage of these offers, with the intent of saving the time normally spent undertaking an Access or Foundation course. One University rejected my offer without the benefit of an interview; however, following interviews at the other institutions, I was offered unconditional places at the remaining University, and one of the Polytechnics. The second Polytechnic would accept me only after my successful completion of an Access course. During what became a contentious interview, when it was suggested that I needed some preparation before I could be accepted, I asked why and, as far as I was concerned, was not given a satisfactory answer. The interviewers (both now my colleagues, though they do not remember me from the interview) informed me that I would benefit from undertaking some preparatory study. Choosing not to take this advice I went instead to the University offering me the unconditional place, thus saving myself a year.

The creation of Access and Foundation courses, as the 'third recognised route' (Jones 1992) into HE, with their integral components of 'study skills' proved popular with admissions tutors, to the extent that entry through these routes became the norm for mature applicants. Evidence of this popularity can be seen in my experience outlined above. Due to their popularity with admissions tutors and mature students alike, these routes have become the standard method of entry for those over the age of 21, to the point where individuals matriculating in this way have lost their 'non-standard' characterisation. This is a description now better suited to those adults applying directly to universities, with no formal entry requirements. Much has been written about adult students entering through this ‘third route’: their achievements in comparison to A-level entrants; their problems and experiences etc. (Richardson, 1994: Osbourne, Leopold & Ferrie, 1997: Simonite, 1997) Little, however, has been written about the efficacy of the Access/Foundation courses in their prescribed task of preparing adults for entry into HE - especially as set against 'non-standard' applicants who apply directly to university through what Jones (1992) describes as the 'flexible entry route'.

Since becoming an admissions tutor, faced with applications from people very much like myself, I have often reflected on these circumstances and wondered if I would have benefited from preparatory study, or whether a preparatory year would have been time wasted. Perhaps because of my previous experiences, I have tended to give ‘flexible entry’ applicants the benefit of the doubt regarding their preparedness for higher education, as a result of which, the degree for which I am responsible has recruited a considerable number of adults with no formal academic qualifications. The content of the course is such that it attracts mature applicants generally, with the consequence that over 80% of graduates and current students are categorised as mature. The make up of this student body is such that it provides the opportunity to test the efficacy of Access/Foundation courses, through the performance and experiences of students entering higher education though those routes, in contrast with the performance and experience of those entering through the ‘flexible entry’ route.

The paper will argue that preparation for higher education through approved Access/Foundation courses is of academic advantage to those taking them, providing a head start over those entering HE directly with no formal academic qualifications, though that advantage is lost by graduation. It will go on to argue that despite the apparent success of Access/Foundation courses in preparing students for HE, significant numbers of those students do not feel adequately prepared for this level of study. Finally, it will argue that those adults choosing entry through Access/Foundation courses find the application process significantly more stressful than direct entry students. For the purposes of simplification, students entering HE through Access or Foundation courses will be identified as A/F students; direct entry students will be identified as DE students.

Contrasting academic performance.

In order to contrast the academic performance of the two categories of students, the records of 144 mature graduates were examined. Of this group 112 were A/F students and 32 were DE students. Of the 112 A/F students, 53 (47%) had increased their marks between year 1 and their aggregated marks for years 2 and 3: the lowest increase being 1%, and the highest 9%. The average increase of this group was 3.1% (SD 1.98). Of these, 31 (28%) had improved their grade by at least one classification over the three years. Again, 53 (47%) had experienced a decrease in marks, the least being 1%, the highest 17%. The average decrease of this group was 4.5% (SD 3.69). Of these 17 (15%) suffered a reduction in grade, by at least one classification over the three years. The remaining 5 students (5%) had scored the same across all three years. The overall average mark for year one for the whole group was 58%, with the same average for all three years.

Of the 32 DE students, 25 (78%) increased their marks between year 1 and their aggregated marks for years 2 and 3: the lowest increase being 1%, and the highest 18%. The average increase of this group was 6.5% (SD 4.5). Of these, 15 (46%) improved their grade by at least one classification over the three years. Of the remainder, 5 (16%) had experienced a decrease in marks: the lowest decrease being 1%, and the highest 5%. The average decrease of this group was 3.2% (SD 1.4). Of these, 2 (6%) suffered a reduction in grade, by at least one classification, over the three years. The final 2 students (6%) scored the same marks across all three years. The overall average mark for year one for this group was 56%, increasing to 59% in year three.

What can we take from these figures? As the findings are based on a relatively small group of students they can not claim to be representative, however they do provide cause for reflection. The DE students show significant improvement across the three years: 78% had increased their marks, at an average of 6.5% per student, with 46% improving by at least one classification. This is in contrast with A/F students whose improvement was less marked: 46% had increased their mark, at an average of 3.1%, with 28% improving by at least one classification. The contrast between students whose marks decreased is also marked: of the DE group, 16% suffered a reduction in marks, at an average of 3.2% per student, with 6% dropping at least one classification. Of the A/F students, 47% experienced a reduction in marks, at an average of 4.5% per student, with 15% dropping at least one classification.

It would be easy to place too much significance on these figures. For one thing there are too many variables to mention here that will have affected these results. For another, if the final aggregate marks of both groups are compared, we find little difference: DE students had a final average of 58.8%; the A/F students final average was 58.4%.

My reading of these results suggests that, for the DE students, the first year of their degree course represented a foundation year, providing the skills that allowed them to catch up to those students entering through the Access/Foundation route. If this is the case then admissions tutors should be more amenable to mature students seeking to save time by entering directly into HE without the benefit of a foundation year. This does not mean that Access/Foundation courses should not continue to be the central route into HE for mature students. If DE students were able to improve to the extent that they did, how much more might they have achieved, had they taken advantage of an Access/Foundation course? The following data suggests that Access/Foundation courses do provide an excellent preparation for HE.

First Class Honours

Upper Second Class Honours

Lower Second Class Honours

Third Class Honours

3 (3%)

66 (59%)

38 (34%)

5 (5%)

This is in contrast to the DE students:

First Class Honours

Upper Second Class Honours

Lower Second Class Honours

2 (6%)

12 (37%)

18 (56%)


We can see that of those with the benefit of an Access/Foundation year, 62% gained Upper Second Class Honours or above, in contrast to the DE students of whom 43% achieved the same grades, a significant difference. Taken together (First and Upper Second = 58%) these results contrast well with those offered by Roderick, Bell & Hamilton (1982) (First and Upper Second 26%).

Experience of admission procedures.

To discover any experiential differences between the two groups of students of the admissions procedures, the study group was widened to include current mature students. This increased the group from 144 to 170, with 131 A/F students and 39 DE students. Questionnaires were distributed, and of the 170, 67 were returned, a response rate of 40%. Of these 67 responses 47 (70%) were A/F students, and 20 (30%) were DE students. The questionnaires were designed to elicit information on the areas outlined below.

Preparedness for university.

The primary function of all Access and Foundation courses is to prepare students for study at degree level. It is what they were designed to do, and is the reason they are recognised as the ‘third way’ into HE, and why admission tutors rely so heavily on them for assessing applications from mature students. Of the A/F respondents 31 (66%) felt they were adequately prepared, 16 (34%) did not. Given the figures discussed above, this apparent lack of preparedness of a significant number of A/F students is misplaced, as these courses appear to be achieving their stated ambitions. Similar misconceptions appear to exist within the DE group, where 13 (65%) felt they were adequately prepared for this level of study and 5 (35%) did not. Again, the figures would suggest that these views are a misconception. That the two data sets are similar may be more indicative of the confidence levels within the respondents generally, rather than an accurate assessment of preparedness.

Stress with application process.

Access/Foundation courses, as well as being charged with providing an academic grounding in a range of subject areas, preparing students for the intellectual rigors of HE, also provide advice and support in gaining a place at university. This mainly takes the form of advising on the completion of the UCAS form, and in preparing applicants for interview. The experience of the admissions procedure was a concern for a number of applicants, and again a significant difference exists between the A/F students and the DE students. Of the A/F students 27 (57%) reported feeling stressed by the experience, in contrast to 5 (25%) of the DE students. The causes of this stress ranged across difficulties with the application form, advice given by their FE institutions, and their experience of interviews.

The literature suggests that A/F students should be advantaged in the area of applications as FE tutors are well placed to offer advice and counselling, with many arranging visits to HE Institutions (Chiswick, 1991: Cody, 1991). The findings of this research would suggest that the

provision of advice is by no means universal, as 7 (15%) students reported that none had been provided.

One cause of this stress is the timing of the application process, with a mid-December deadline. Course selection, and the completion of application forms, must begin close to the start of the Access/Foundation courses and these students believe the speed with which the process begins leaves little time for considered or rational decisions in the choice of course. Consequently, the advice offered by FE tutors tended to be procedural, rather than on course selection. One student commented that it was more stressful because I was older, the UCAS

form had to be in at the start of college, and I found that difficult as I felt that I had no writing skills.

Tutors, waiting until the last moment to complete references, also cause anxiety, giving themselves time to assess some of the student’s work to enable an accurate reference to be given. As the deadline approached some students reported increased stress, exacerbated by the belief among some of them that the application process is of a 'first come first served' nature, with early application seen as advantageous. While this would be denied by all involved, there remains an, often un-stated, awareness that for some of the more heavily subscribed, occupational courses, this may well be the case.

Undoubtedly, the main case of stress is the personal statement. Great emphasis is placed upon this by FE tutors in the belief that mature students have to get themselves ‘noticed’, in order to gain an invitation to attend for interview, at which they can sell themselves. All of those reporting stress in the application process were at pains to emphasise this. Typically: we were told that if we got it wrong, we had blown our chances. These pressures are placed on A/F

students because, with Access and foundation courses specifically designed to prepare individuals for entry to HE, their success or failure will be judged, not simply on their pass rates, but by the numbers of their students who subsequently gain entry to HE. FE tutors are stressed by the need to ensure that applicants maximise their chances of gaining a place in HE.

Consequently, importance is given to filling the UCAS form in correctly, especially in getting the personal statement right, increasing the stresses on the applicants.

Those A/F students not feeling stressed by the application process gave two reasons for the ease of the process. Firstly, they felt the support and advice they received from the FE tutors removed the stress from the process. Secondly, of the 20 not reporting stress, 7 had entered FE with a specific HE course and institution in mind, thus removing the anxiety over choice of course.

Of the DE students experiencing stress, this was caused by the interview, as they saw this as the main barrier to entry. None felt stressed by the application form, seeing it as an expected part of the process. It should also be noted that these DE applicants were not subject to the advice and urgings of the tutors in the FE institutions. The fact that they felt able to apply for direct entry may be representative of a more general confidence than experienced by their peers who chose to spend a year in FE to prepare themselves for HE. Most DE students found the procedure non-stressful, typical was the comment apart from doubts about my own ability, the whole process was straightforward. The main problem reported by the DE students was the early application date. Many of them believed that application for a place on an undergraduate degree was much like signing up for an evening class; a course that one could apply for a place as late as the month before commencement.


We can see from the evidence of this research that Access and Foundation courses have an important role to play in the process of increasing access to higher education. Like everything in life, including the Curate’s egg, they are good in parts. These courses prepare students well for the academic rigors of higher education, but in doing so, they can increase the stresses on the people they were designed to help. However, the main concern with this paper is to explore the idea that direct entry into higher education is a viable option, and one that should be at least considered by admission tutors. Despite the advantages of Access/Foundation course, advantages underpinned by the findings of this research, there remains a need to consider direct entry into higher education for students with no recognised academic qualifications. This is especially so today, as the new funding arrangements make it increasingly difficult for adults to seriously consider re-entering education. The numbers of mature applicants are falling, and the prospect of four years out of employment, the time it takes to complete an Access course and a degree, may be too long for many mature individuals to contemplate. The opportunity of direct entry, reducing the time taken to complete a degree course by one year, may be a price more will be willing to pay. This paper is proof, if it were needed, that not all mature students require a foundation year to do well in HE.

The problem is now such that, as Access and Foundation courses have become central to the process or returning adults to education, the system designed to increase access has itself become a barrier (Jones: 1992). Some admission tutors, like my colleagues who interviewed me, see the Access and Foundation courses as a way of avoiding difficult choices. The development of such courses has made it easy for some admission tutors to abrogate their responsibility by providing them with a mechanism for screening mature candidates, and as a consequence, temporarily excluding those individuals who feel themselves capable of direct entry to university. No one would deny that some of these decisions are difficult, but it must be recognised that direct entry applicants have also been faced with difficult decisions, decisions that will not have been made lightly. It is therefore imperative that these individuals should have their applications fully considered, and that all decisions should be made on the grounds of merit, rather that expediency.

Some of the more enlightened institutions and tutors have devised their own ad hoc procedures to test the ‘fitness’ of the candidate (Roderick, Bell & Hamilton: 1982). The tutors involved in selection for this particular course have developed their own procedures, based upon an in-depth interview with two tutors, at which each applicant’s ‘fitness’ is assessed. There is no denying that this is a difficult process, one that is not entered in lightly, as it is easy to set people up to fail. There is no prescriptive methodology to be offered for this process, and the decisions are based on individual judgements, backed up by experience. Mature students with no academic qualifications are actively encouraged to apply for direct entry to this course, and the results that we have experienced from direct entry students have greatly encouraged us in this. By making direct entry a tool of inclusion, rather than an excuse for temporary exclusion, we have challenged the myth that higher education should only be available to an academically well prepared minority.

Finally, the dichotomy between widening access and improving quality (or perhaps between widening access and maintaining an elitist system) may be a false one. Babbage and Leyton (1993) make the point that enhancing quality in HE may be better served by selecting students on qualitative grounds rather than administrative convenience. Given my own background, it will come as no surprise that I fully support this view.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 27 June 2000