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17 September 2020

How Access to HE helped prepare us for healthcare routes during the pandemic


Luke Myer
Policy and Public Affairs Officer, QAA

SINCE the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare students have played a more important role than ever. In all four countries of the UK, students have been stepping into essential roles at the health and social care frontline; in June, the Nursing & Midwifery Council thanked them for having ‘undoubtedly saved lives’.


But getting onto healthcare routes isn’t always easy, especially for those coming from different backgrounds than the typical higher education entrant. This is why QAA manages the Access to Higher Education Diploma - a qualification which prepares people without traditional qualifications for study at university. The regulation of Access to HE is funded by QAA-licensed Access Validating Agencies, and its promotion and development is funded by QAA’s Members. Since 1997, Access to HE has provided an important recruitment pipeline for the NHS, helping tens of thousands of students to enter the healthcare sector. Here, three former Access students speak about their journeys through education in unusual times.


Ellie Clark studied the Access to Nursing and Midwifery course at Cardiff and Vale College

‘Without my wonderful tutors, phenomenal classmates, inspirational work colleagues and my loving family I wouldn’t have the courage to have made this step towards university,’ she says.


Ellie’s goal is to become a midwife, having worked part-time as a healthcare assistant on a maternity ward. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the NHS, her college supported her return to work.


‘Due to the unforeseen circumstances of the pandemic outbreak I returned to the midwifery department on full-time hours from March,’ she says.


‘With the increase in demand for staff I had to prioritise my job… juggling work commitments and college has been challenging at times, however I’m grateful to have had support in all aspects of my professional and personal life.’


She has completed her course and is progressing on to university this month.


‘I’m very much looking forward to starting university in September – I can’t believe it’s finally my turn to be a midwifery student!’


Sian Roberts studied on the Access to Medicine course at City and Islington College


‘I was really ill when I was younger, so I wasn’t actually well enough to finish school,’ she says. ‘I dropped out part-way through my A-levels.’


‘Then, nearly three years ago, I had a major surgery which made me a lot better, and that meant I could move forward with my life, and do what I wanted to do. But I had no qualifications. I wanted to study Medicine, so signed up for the Access to Medicine course at City and Islington College. I went from there, and somehow got in!’


‘I couldn’t speak highly enough of City and Islington, they were wonderful… it was a really good course, the staff there were really nice, really supportive. It’s quite intense, but it was really enjoyable. I think the intensity kind of helped, because it prepares you for the volume of content there is in first year [of university].’


This intensity can make it easy to fall behind if you miss a class, but Sian’s college helped support her.


‘I had to miss a few lessons due to appointments and illness, however it was easy to arrange to go to one of the other tutor groups classes instead to make up the same lesson, so I’d really recommend trying to do that if possible.’


She is now entering her second year of studying Medicine at St George's, University of London.


‘I think Access is a great route if you’ve had a different kind of life pathway, or you want to change careers. For people like me, a mature non-graduate student, I think it’s a really good entry route to widen participation – I wouldn’t have been able to get in without it.’


Saffron Granger studied on the Access to HE: Health Professions course at John Leggott College


‘My first attempt at education was squashed by this desire and need to transition,’ she says. ‘I just felt really awful and conflicted.’


Following her gender transition, Saffron struggled with homelessness and mental health issues. It was the support she had from psychiatric nurses that spurred her on to want to become a nurse herself.


‘I figured that I was really good at caring for people… I had admitted my dream of becoming a nurse and it was just the conversation I needed to change my outlook. I’m not too old and it’s not too late.’


‘My college, and specifically my tutor, were incredibly supportive and understanding… we fostered an environment in which there really were no stupid questions and people were free to learn on their own terms. The flexibility of the course and tutors meant that we didn’t even really have strict personal timetables. If we couldn’t get into college, we were sent work and reading and could work from outside the classroom.’


Saffron completed her Diploma, achieving a place at the University of Portsmouth to study a BN (Hons) Nursing (Mental Health). She is in her second year, and due to graduate as a mental health nurse in 2022.


‘The pandemic has been incredibly difficult, but using the skills from my first year I actually managed to also get a job as a Healthcare Support Worker. I have been working that throughout the pandemic and have been doing my studies alongside this.’


‘Away from work and school my mental health has greatly improved, and I am really confident and happy with where I’m at.’


Access to HE now helps over 8,000 students go onto nursing programmes every year, and many more going into other healthcare routes

Over 90% of graduates with an Access to HE Diploma are employed or in further study within 6 months of graduation. There are hundreds of case studies of successful NHS workers who progressed through Access, and around a quarter of Access students come from disadvantaged areas, compared to 10% on other Level 3 qualifications.


This year, because of the pandemic, Access to HE students due to complete their Diploma by 31st July received calculated grades. Access to HE results in 2020 have been in line with previous years, with fewer than 1% of students appealing. 22,560 Access students have been awarded the Diploma in 2020

Any advice for aspiring healthcare students looking at Access to HE?


For an Access to Medicine course my specific advice would be to make sure you study for and take the UCAT the summer before you start. As well as researching medical schools that accept an Access to Medicine course from your specific college, what their entry requirements are and also how they will assess your application as this can vary across medical schools.

But it’s a really good route to take, and it draws people from different backgrounds, which I feel only benefits medicine.


I kind of am in love with the idea of Access and what it actually does for people like me. There were mothers, wives and husbands on the course. People who had led incredibly different lives who wanted, much like me, to be different.

I learned that it is never too late to do something that scares you or challenges you in a different way… through it all, the Access course is made up of people, both peers and tutors alike, that will not let you fail.

I will never lie to anyone and say it’s easy, but it’s one of many keys to a successful and incredibly bright future. Access has given me a new lease of life.