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Year 0: A foundation for widening participation?

Widening participation in higher education continues to be a key policy objective across all nations of the UK, with the sector having implemented various approaches in its attempt to achieve this ambition. In this blog, HESA's Data and Innovation team provide a brief analysis of how one of these methods – the opportunity to undertake a foundation year – is supporting this aim.

The purpose of the foundation year is to help students who may not meet the standard requirements for entry into university to spend one year developing the academic and soft skills needed to succeed in higher education. It has therefore come to be seen as a pathway that can help promote more equal opportunity, including by the architect of the English funding system, David Willetts.

We have undertaken an exploration of HESA data to shed light on the characteristics of foundation year students and how this has evolved over time, with specific attention paid to disadvantaged and mature individuals (aged 25 or over). Our work focuses on English and Welsh domiciled ‘year 0’ entrants who form part of the standard registration population between the academic years 2010/11 and 2017/18. We found the vast majority of these students to be in full-time study. Numbers in Scotland and Northern Ireland were too small for any meaningful examination to be undertaken.

The foundation year population

Driven predominantly by the changes occurring in England, overall entry into courses with foundation years rose at a steady pace between 2012/13 and 2017/18. The one exception to this was between 2014/15 and 2015/16, when particularly strong growth was observed. While this aligns with the removal of the student cap, our analysis here cannot confirm this to be a causal relationship. These higher numbers are the result of some providers expanding their existing provision, alongside the emergence of new entrants in this segment of the higher education market.

Chart 1 - English and Welsh domiciled entrants to foundation year courses

Academic years 2010/11 to 2017/18


As the graph above illustrates, London domiciled students make up a sizeable proportion (around a quarter to one third) of the foundation year population in England and Wales in each academic year. Indeed, almost 40% of the increase in numbers since 2014/15 is accounted for by individuals residing in London. In Wales, participation tripled from 360 to 1,080 between 2010/11 and 2017/18.

Mature and disadvantaged student entry

In both England and Wales, the proportion of mature entrants has increased between 2010/11 and 2017/18. The most pronounced change is observed in London, where the percentage has risen from 9% in 2013/14 to 30% in 2017/18. Wales also experienced a rise in the proportion (and number) of mature students between 2012/13 and 2015/16 (from 10% to 23%), though there has been a slight stagnation in entry in the last two academic years.

For this analysis, we have used the latest (country-specific) Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) as a proxy for disadvantage, as it encapsulates a greater number of dimensions of disadvantage than POLAR4, which is solely based on higher education participation amongst young people. In England, the proportion of foundation year entrants from quintile 1 of the IMD indicator (representing the 20% most disadvantaged areas) has grown from 25% to 32%. Conducting the analysis by age reveals that the increase is more profound among mature students. For this group, the percentage has risen from 29% to 41% in the time period being considered. Wales also saw a boost in participation among disadvantaged students, with the proportion from such a background changing from 15% in 2012/13 to 24% by 2015/16, however both the number and proportion has essentially flat-lined since then.

Chart 2 - Index of English and Welsh domiciled entrants to foundation year courses (base year is 2012/13)

Academic years 2010/11 to 2017/18



Foundation years have been topical in Wales, with the Welsh Government having run a consultation on this area in 2016. This highlighted that there was a need for more research in this field, so that its costs and benefits could be more fully understood. In England, the Office for Students has stated that reversing the decline in entry into higher education among mature students and especially those from less privileged backgrounds is a vital part of ensuring more equality in access to higher education. Much of the current debate has been around what modifications are required within part-time study and student finance to help achieve this, given such courses are taken predominantly by older students.

The above narrative suggests that foundation years could also be a useful way of helping disadvantaged mature learners return to study. In both countries, we found that much of the increase in mature entry in recent years is accounted for by a small number of institutions. Hence, future research may wish to explore how these universities have managed to buck the wider trend of decline, as this may improve sector understanding of what is needed to support mature and/or disadvantaged individuals into higher education.  

We have analysed foundation year entry in isolation in this blog, though the work presented here could be supplemented by contextualising these findings against patterns occurring in the wider undergraduate market. With the expanding number of routes by which one can enter higher education, it would also be helpful to examine the pathways through which students have entered a foundation year. Furthermore, access is only one aspect of the student lifecycle. Given the financial commitment associated with degrees with foundation years, detailed consideration of retention rates and initial labour market outcomes would be fruitful avenues for exploration, as this would enable more informed career guidance to be offered to prospective students.

We’re grateful to our colleagues at UCAS for their feedback on our findings and contributions to this blog. We look forward to working with them further to explore joint interests in this topic. Comments and questions on the above analysis are most welcome and can be emailed to [email protected].

Tej Nathwani

Tej Nathwani

Principal Researcher (Economist)