Supporting Widening Participation students to succeed with the School of Mathematics Access Scholarship

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In this post, Grace Sansom, Recruitment Officer in the School of Mathematics, highlights how their School offers scholarships to help alleviate financial pressures, which is one of the most common barriers Widening Participation students encounter. This example complements the third strand of the Widening Participation Strategy, which centres on ‘Support to Succeed’. This strand focuses on the disadvantages Widening Participation (WP) students face during their studies, and therefore may “find it harder…to succeed academically, pastorally, and socially within the University environment.” (WP Strategy 2018-2021 Guiding Principles)… 

My role as Recruitment Officer for the School of Mathematics is to attract a talented and diverse cohort of students to study Mathematics at Edinburgh. One key priority that we have identified in our recruitment strategy is the need to support students from Widening Participation (WP) backgrounds, and the ‘School of Mathematics Access Scholarships’ are one of the ways we are working to enable and encourage more students to choose Edinburgh for their undergraduate studies.

For students from WP backgrounds, some of the biggest concerns about attending university are moving away from home, and the cost of financing their studies. Even with loans and bursaries from local funding bodies (such as SAAS and Student Finance England), as well as University of Edinburgh schemes such as ‘The Scotland Scholarship’, it is sometimes not enough. As a result, WP students are more likely to attend a local university and live at home when they study. If they do move away, lots of students find they have to work part-time to make ends meet and therefore have less time to focus on their studies.

All of these factors limit students in their choice of institution, and ultimately gives them an altogether different university experience. It should instead be an informed choice where they have consciously made that decision!

To combat some of this, the School of Maths have created the ‘School of Mathematics Access Scholarships’ to encourage high-achieving students to study Mathematics here and to support them in making the move to university.

The scholarships are aimed at students who are:

• Attending high schools with low progression to Higher Education
• Young people with care experience
• Young carers
• Living in areas of multiple deprivation (identified by postcode)
• Involved in LEAPS or similar Widening Participation programmes.

In addition, eligible students will have evidenced or be predicted to achieve a strong academic performance before starting university.

The award itself is worth £5,000 a year and students will receive this sum every year throughout their degree. Although the scholarship is very new (our first cohort are currently in the middle of their Year 1 exams), we have already found that the scholarship was the catalyst for some students choosing to live independently whilst studying in Edinburgh, whereas previously they had planned to commute from home. They can now afford to live in university accommodation, and do not have to worry about working part-time to cover their living costs.

Finding a way to implement the scholarship has been difficult. Ideally, we would have a more complete data set to work from, with access to household income data (currently unavailable to Schools). In reality, we are left to use information automatically gathered by the UCAS application, combined with academic performance data and additional WP factors taken from personal statements and references. The Director of Teaching and I then make our selections from a shortlist of around 60 eligible candidates.

Last year, of the six scholarship offers made, four recipients are now on the programme with us at Edinburgh. I recently met with last year’s scholarship recipients to find out what impact the awards had made on their first few months of university life. It was touching to hear that all were surprised to have been offered the scholarship, with a couple of them even feeling guilty for receiving it. After the initial shock, all of them had felt relieved, and it had significantly reduced any financial worries about going to university.

All of the students have used their scholarship in different ways. For one student who has lived independently since the age of 16, the scholarship enables them to stay in Edinburgh over the summer. For another, it means that they can focus on their studies and enjoy the full university experience, rather than spending time commuting and helping with younger siblings at home. The scholarship has also allowed students to enhance their university experience in other ways, by allowing them to join a sports club that they would have otherwise been unable to afford, or by giving them the funds to purchase their own laptop.

My favourite moment from these meetings was hearing how the rediscovery of the original offer letter gave a student the spark of motivation they needed to get through a difficult period, and the scholarship boosted their confidence in their academic ability. They realised that they had been awarded this scholarship because we believed they had the potential to succeed, and for me, that is what the scholarship is about: enabling students to recognise their own potential, to fulfil it, and to succeed.

Grace Sansom

Grace is a Recruitment Officer in the School of Mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. She leads on recruitment of UK and EU students to the School’s undergraduate and MSc programmes, with strategic oversight on developing initiatives to support the Widening Participation agenda at an Academic School level. Prior to working at the University of Edinburgh, Grace’s studies in Mathematics at the University of York led her to a graduate job in York’s Widening Participation team where she worked on multiple projects to help raise the aspirations of disadvantaged pupils in the local area.

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