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St John’s announces ground-breaking plan to offer free university places to country’s most disadvantaged students

Posted on May 25

4 min read

College Events & News

St John’s College has launched the UK’s most generous programme to fully-fund the education and living costs at Cambridge University for students from lower-income backgrounds.

The Free Places financial support package will cover tuition fees, accommodation costs, and other day-to-day living expenses for up to 40 undergraduate students at a time.

Eligible students will be able to access more than £17,000 of financial support for every academic year at Cambridge. The money will not need to be paid back, allowing students to graduate completely debt-free from one of the world’s leading universities.

Removing serious financial barriers for prospective students is a powerful signal that Cambridge really is for everyone

Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s

The unprecedented programme will cover the £9,250 annual tuition fees for all qualifying undergraduates. In addition, it will fund rent and maintenance costs, making it the most generous student finance support in the country. Each qualifying student will receive over £51,000 of support in total, based on an undergraduate enrolled on a three-year degree course.

Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s, said: ‘For more than 500 years, St John’s College has had an unwavering commitment to provide financial support for students in need. We are determined to sustain this legacy. Removing serious financial barriers for prospective students is a powerful signal that Cambridge really is for everyone.

‘It is still true that high-potential pupils from low-income families, and young people leaving care, are deciding against university because of the prospect of significant debt. They don’t want to be a burden to their family. They worry about their future employability and how they’ll ever be free of an unimaginable financial millstone from attending university.

‘We want to take away that anxiety and to give those talented young people the confidence to take a life-changing step towards St John’s and the University of Cambridge, knowing that they will truly be welcome and supported here. Thanks to the extraordinary generosity of a donor, we already have £14m pledged of the £25m we need to deliver this student support in perpetuity. We hope this programme will be backed by philanthropists who share our commitment to helping exceptional students realise their potential.’

The Free Places programme will begin in October 2023, benefiting pupils currently in Year 11 or below. There will be a recruitment campaign to attract exceptionally bright students to Cambridge whose household income is below £16,200.

We want to give talented young people the confidence to take a life-changing step towards St John’s and the University of Cambridge, knowing that they will truly be welcome and supported here

Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s

The programme has been launched thanks to an anonymous foundation, which has made a £14 million pledge to the College’s Free Places fundraising campaign. The eight-figure sum will be partly used to match other donations towards the programme. This will maximise the support available to the students who need it most. All gifts, along with the matching donation, will be directed into The Christopher Dobson Endowment for Free Places, a ring-fenced element of the College’s Endowment. As such, the Free Places programme will be a permanent fixture of the financial support on offer for undergraduates at St John’s.

The launch of the Free Places programme comes after the College ran a ‘St John’s Studentship’ pilot scheme, which pays the maintenance costs for qualifying undergraduates but not tuition fees. To date, the Studentship Scheme has already supported more than 200 students who have received a total of £2.8m financial support so far from the College. The Free Places scheme will go even further and cover all costs for the students who need it most.

St John’s College was founded in 1511 by the will of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII. It is now one of the largest Colleges of the University of Cambridge. In establishing the College, Lady Margaret wanted to ensure that it recruited both its young scholars and teaching Fellows from England’s northernmost counties. She also wanted those in most financial need to have disproportionate admission to the University of Cambridge, by becoming members of St John’s.

In line with her wishes, between 1511 and 1689 exactly 50% of student admissions to St John’s were from what were then considered to be the northern counties of the country – that figure has fallen over the years to around 15% of UK undergraduate admissions today, reflecting a wider pattern across leading universities outside the north.

Now, to strengthen the College’s extensive outreach programme and to reinforce the commitment to Free Places, an experienced academic from St John’s has been appointed to forge links with schools in the north of England to support students who may never have previously contemplated applying to Cambridge.

This unprecedented level of support has been made possible thanks to a generous donor who really will change lives by opening Cambridge up to more people than ever through the Free Places programme

Heather Hancock, Master of St John’s

The Master, herself an undergraduate at St John’s, and the first pupil from her northern comprehensive school to reach Oxbridge as well as the first person in her family to go to university, said: ‘We know that removing the financial hurdles is essential, but not enough to achieve our goal. So, alongside the Free Places campaign we will also offer targeted practical support from Year 10 through to Year 13 to ensure pupils capable of studying at Cambridge are given the best chance of reaching the rigorous academic standards needed.

‘We want to do this by building dedicated long-term relationships in target areas, specifically the north of England, and by offering mentoring and support from current and past students and our academics. This unprecedented level of support has been made possible thanks to a generous donor who really will change lives by opening Cambridge up to more people than ever through the Free Places programme.’

All qualifying students who are offered a place at St John’s will automatically receive the grants from the College from the academic year 2023/24, regardless of whether they are from the north of England or from elsewhere in the UK – the College aims to fully support 40 qualifying students in the College at any one time.

The Christopher Dobson Endowment for Free Places is a fund of which St John’s College is the trustee.