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Dobson Free Places at St John’s

In 2021 St John’s secured a £14 million commitment to offer completely free places to UK undergraduates from free school meal backgrounds. £3 million was donated up-front, and the subsequent £11 million made available to match donations from Johnians and friends of the College.

We have raised £5 million over the past three years, unlocking the first £5 million of matched funding. We now aim to raise £2 million a year for the next three years in order to unlock the remaining £6 million. With your help, the result will be an endowed fund of over £25 million that will sustain 40 free places across the College.

Time left to reach next target

11 months 1 weeks 4 days

Free Places is the most ambitious step thus far in our bid to offer genuinely world-class means-tested support. UK undergraduates with household incomes below 60% of the national median will be eligible for a free place at St John’s. These students will have both their maintenance and tuition fees covered by the College, allowing them to graduate completely debt-free.

Free Places will not only significantly increase the generosity of our provision for UK students from low-income backgrounds but will also be the cornerstone in making means-tested student support at St John’s self-sustaining, by virtue of an endowed fund.

All donations to Free Places will be matched, doubling the impact of your gift.

Free places are not a new idea. Pre-1990 it was the norm for UK students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds good enough to study at university to do so for free. Following the launch of the Student Loans Company, the years from 1990 saw a gradual increase in the proportion of study costs that less well-off students were expected to cover themselves via debt. This culminated in 2016 when all students were faced with the same bill, regardless of means. For top-tier UK universities, that cost is now £60k for a three-year degree, several times the annual household incomes of some students.

Understandably, this debt burden is a considerable barrier to students from these backgrounds applying, and even if they do apply and win a place, the debt detrimentally affects their university experience in a number of ways, creating anxiety and discouraging them from participating in sports or societies. These students also feel pressured to return home during the vacations to minimise costs instead of pursuing valuable work experience, research and learning opportunities like many of their peers.


However, adequate means-tested support has not fallen out of vogue everywhere. Prestigious US universities offer generous financial support packages, not only to their own nationals but to all talented students.

While ‘full-price’ study at Cambridge is half the cost of somewhere like Harvard, the bursaries available at the US institution mean it is a much more attractive option for less wealthy UK students (and effectively free of cost to those from families with incomes of less than £45,000 per annum).

As the world gets smaller, UK social mobility charities are now putting talented students in touch with these institutions as well as Oxbridge, and they report an increase in students opting to take up scholarships abroad. This is clearly an enormous problem for the UK’s leading universities, and the issue is likely to increase as extremely well-funded universities in the Far East enter the fray.


To date, much of Cambridge’s outreach work has focused on addressing age-old misconceptions about Cambridge. However, over the past decade we at St John’s have found that it is our increasingly generous financial support offering that has added true bite to the College’s outreach message: by focusing on means-tested assistance, we are now able to show potential applicants that we understand the issues they face and that we are addressing them directly.

The launch of Free Places at St John’s amplifies this message.

The Free Places scheme has been designed so that the beneficiaries are able to graduate completely debt-free. Eligible students will also be entitled to a £3,500 per annum non-repayable grant from the central Cambridge Bursary scheme. Therefore, each year the value of a Free Place at St John’s will be calculated based on the University’s annual maintenance rate plus the annual tuition fee less the value of the Cambridge Bursary, to ensure that it takes into account cost of living increases. For the inaugural cohort in, it is estimated that the annual value of a Free Places award will be ~£17,300.

The £11 million available for matching Free Places gifts will be donated by an anonymous foundation and is distributed across five discrete fundraising periods.

The matched funding available in each period is only available for gifts received in that specific time frame, and cannot be rolled over. The dates and targets are outlined below. To make the most of this unprecedented opportunity and unlock all of the matched funding available, St John’s will need to hit all five consecutive fundraising targets.

Fundraising
period
Fundraising
target
Maximum matched
funding available
Total into endowed
fund if fundraising
target achieved
1st April 2021
– 31st March 2023
£3 million£3 million£6 million – ACHIEVED
1st April 2023
– 31st March 2024
£2 million£2 million£4 million – ACHIEVED
1st April 2024
– 31st March 2025
£2 million£2 million £4 million
1st April 2025
– 31st March 2026
£2 million£2 million£4 million
1st April 2026
– 31st March 2027
£2 million£2 million£4 million

All gifts to Free Places, along with the matching donation, will be directed into The Christopher Dobson Endowment for Free Places, which is managed as a ring-fenced element of the College’s Endowment.

When speaking of the College’s wealth, most people are referring to the Endowment, which is a mixture of property and securities assets, and is managed separately from the day-to-day finances. The Endowment supports the College by providing an annual payment, known as the distribution.

Over the five financial years June 2014 – June 2019, the Endowment saw an average investment return of 9.4%. However, as an age-old institution St John’s is aware of its duty not only to current scholars but to all the generations to come. Thus the annual distribution is currently targeted at 3% of the Endowment value, with remaining investment returns dedicated to ensuring that the Endowment’s purchasing power is not eroded over time.

As a ring-fenced element of the College’s Endowment, The Christopher Dobson Endowment for Free Places will have the same target annual distribution as the College Endowment. It is this distribution that will cover the cost of 40 free places per annum.

Fairness is something I feel very strongly about: being fair and inclusive seems to me to be so obviously the right thing to do.

Chris Dobson (1949 – 2019)

The endowed fund that will sustain the Free Places scheme at St John’s is named for our previous Master, Professor Sir Christopher Dobson, who sadly passed away in Autumn 2019.

The outside world knew Chris as a giant of science, whose contribution to the understanding of their underlying mechanisms will likely transform the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes, improving countless lives. To Johnians, Chris was all this and more: an exceptionally committed Master who also somehow found the time to be a world-class researcher.

Profoundly engaged in the College community, Chris always had time for students, staff, Fellows and alumni alike. Over the years many Johnians experienced first-hand his warmth and hospitality. Indeed, Chris was the antithesis of the stereotypical image of the aloof scientist: he was greatly interested in people and their stories and cared deeply about fairness.

Chris arrived at Cambridge and St John’s College in 2001 by way of Oxford and Harvard and took up the position of John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Chemical and Structural Biology. In 2007 he became the 44th Master of St John’s, a role in which his passion for fairness came to the fore.

As the son of parents who left school at 14 without qualifications, Chris felt strongly that the duty of higher education institutions was to ‘optimise talent’ wherever it may originate, and under his leadership St John’s made means-tested support a priority.

Taking on the Mastership of St John’s did not inhibit Chris’s scientific endeavours. He founded the Cambridge Centre for Misfolding Diseases in 2012; set up Wren Therapeutics, a biotechnology company, in 2016; and was instrumental in fundraising for the Chemistry of Health Building, which opened in 2018.

Chris also received some of the highest honours for science. He was awarded the Royal Medal; a knighthood for services to science and education; and the Heineken Prize from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, the major international prize for biochemistry and biophysics, and a statistically excellent predictor for the subsequent award of the Nobel Prize.

St John’s has made great progress in improving it’s means-tested support offering over the past decade, but until now these new initiatives have been funded hand-to-mouth by annual, immediate-use donations, as opposed to by an endowed fund.

To continue developing means-tested support at St John’s, we need it endowed, and the Christopher Dobson Endowment for Free Places is the first step on that journey. This unprecedented gift-matching opportunity will allow us to have 40 students per year covered by the fund distribution. With this secured, we will be able to move on to fundraising for schemes to cover students slightly higher up the household income scale, but still in need of financial assistance.

By taking on responsibility for means-tested support, St John’s will release itself and its students from the future whims of government policy on this front and the inevitable knock-on effect on Access. The long-term ambition is to achieve the same level of autonomy as the Ivy League universities, with their generously endowed schemes, so that we can also say to any talented student: we want you, and money won’t be an issue.

The College welcomed the first beneficiaries of Dobson Free Places in Michaelmas 2023. Further information on the recipients will appear here in due course.

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Free Places matched giving offers St John's an unprecedented opportunity to make a sector-leading leap in means-tested support

The fundraising targets are ambitious, due to the nature of endowment, but the reward is without measure: a new era of sustainable, world-class, means-tested support, which we hope will spread beyond St John’s to Cambridge and to the wider UK Higher Education landscape.

Help us show that it can be done.

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Why does St John’s need to fundraise for this project? Read more about College finances.