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Capturing talent: Nonesuch 2017

3 April 2017

Bristol Scholars is the widening participation scheme that has been turning heads since its launch earlier this year, providing alternative entry routes into the University of Bristol on the basis of potential. Nonesuch finds out more.

With a proud Russell Group tradition, solid academic reputation and geographical position in a diverse, pioneering culture, the appeal of Bristol is clear – yet the number of students from the local area going on to study in their home city has historically been low.

Lucy Collins (BSc 2000, MSc 2004), Head of UK Student Recruitment at the University of Bristol, recognises the need for change. ‘Bristol has performed relatively poorly in its intake of the number of local students,’ she says. ‘We’ve seen progress in recent years, but there’s a need for us to do more and to do something different – a view shared by students, staff and alumni.’

Diversifying the student population is a key aim of the University’s new Strategic Plan. One of the ways in which the University hopes to level the playing field is through the launch of Bristol Scholars – and following calls for top universities to improve social mobility, the timing of this radical new admissions scheme couldn’t have been more perfect.

Level playing field

The task of seeking out students in the community who could flourish at Bristol, but who may not have been accepted due to the high entry requirements, begins with developing a close working relationship with the post-16 institutions in the city: each of these schools and colleges is invited to nominate up to five students for the scheme.

‘We’ll need to develop close working relationships with students and with their parents, too,’ explains Collins. ‘Together, we’ll find the potential in our city’s schools and colleges and provide alternative routes to our programmes, recognising that the students’ predicted results, or performance in Year 12, may not reflect their academic ability.’

Eligibility for the scheme will be based on head teachers’ assessments of potential and progress, rather than examination results alone. A submitted statement from the head teacher or director will explain why a student’s potential is not reflected in their predicted grades, along with details of their exceptional circumstances.


Removing the barriers

Economic disadvantage is one of a range of issues that the scholars may have faced, and financial assistance will be available to students whose household income is below £25,000. Priority will be given to students who have overcome educational or domestic disadvantage and meet a range of widening participation criteria such as being the first in their family to attend university, being part of the Free School Meals cohort, living in care or being a young carer.

‘No two situations are the same,’ says Collins. ‘But all scholars will have shown their individual potential to succeed on our programmes of study, against the odds, and places will be offered to the most able students, regardless of their background.’

Over the threshold

This September, the University of Bristol will open its doors to up to 40 talented and motivated Bristol Scholars, who will have proven academic potential in the face of considerable challenges during their studies at GCSE and A Level. Enabling aspiration is key to the scheme’s success. Collins says: ‘We want our lecture theatres and libraries to be welcoming places for academically gifted and highly motivated students from a wide range of backgrounds – inclusive learning communities, equally supportive of all students. To that end, we’re delighted to be welcoming so many promising young students from our local schools and colleges who would otherwise not have got into Bristol.’

However, the scheme is not one of unconditional offers, as Collins explains: ‘The University provides a table of offers, tailoring the standard offer by up to four grades. The scholars will have proven their ability to succeed and contribute, and will continue to demonstrate that aptitude onto their programme of study.’

Transformative education

Bristol Scholars is the first scheme of its kind in the UK and the latest in a suite of widening participation initiatives in place at the University. It has attracted much interest from other institutions, alongside a positive response from the press and from alumni. ‘Looking at talent only via grades is an outdated approach to student admissions,’ says Collins. ‘As alumni, we know the transformative effect the University of Bristol had on us – and we know that grades aren’t everything. That’s why the Bristol Scholars scheme strikes a chord.

A university education changes lives and creates possibilities. Together, we can achieve a step-change in the diversity of Bristol’s student population, hopefully encouraging other UK universities to follow suit.’

Every chance of success

In addition to a guaranteed offer, scholars from under-represented backgrounds will be provided with a tailored package of academic and pastoral support to guide their development and ensure that they thrive at Bristol, as Collins explains: ‘We want to ensure that the students have every chance of succeeding. Once on to their programme of study, academic and pastoral mentoring will be provided along with administered support in the form of peer mentors, financial aid and skills sessions.’

Collins believes the next steps after having gained access to the University are critical in ensuring that the new cohort has the best opportunity to successfully integrate into student life.

‘We’re keen to develop a cohort effect, where students will work and socialise together so they don’t feel isolated, should they continue to live at home,’ she says. ‘Knowing each other before they start will make the transition that little bit easier.’

The 2017 intake

‘This year’s scholars who will be joining us in September are a varied, talented and engaging group – ingredients of brilliant students,’ adds Collins. ‘Bringing with them diversity of experience and perspective, they’ll no doubt enrich the University of Bristol. We can’t wait for them to arrive.’

The scheme has undergone thorough planning built on ten years of experience in fair access programmes such as Access to Bristol, IntoUniversity, and Bristol’s widening participation research which is sector-leading. Ongoing research will be conducted to track the progress of Bristol Scholars, which will influence future admissions policies.

Further information

Did your Bristol education transform you? Could you help a Bristol Scholar? You could play an important role in strengthening our programmes and supporting current students. Email for more information.