A portrait of Ross Morrison outside the William Robertson Wing

Written by

Heroes of education

minutes reading time

The University of Edinburgh's Access Programme is helping those who missed their first opportunity to study for a University degree. Now students of all ages and backgrounds can return to higher education.

For many people, the chance to study for a university degree at the traditional age of 18 simply never happens. Because of health reasons, personal circumstances, or just missed opportunities, those vital exam passes and grades may not work out first time. Once that small window of opportunity was missed, it used to be a case of dream over.

Now, however, thanks to an initiative called the Access Programme at the University of Edinburgh, this is no longer the case. For students of all ages and backgrounds, who have been out of formal education for three years or more, there is now another chance. We interviewed seven students who’ve recently completed the one year Access Programme and gone on to study for a degree at the University of Edinburgh.

For Donna Telford, the course meant the chance to return to education 15 years after leaving school. She made the decision to return after having her family and while working as a social services support worker. “I still get a buzz when I attend lectures and tutorials, knowing that every day I am a step forward to qualifying for a career I always wanted,” she says. “Throughout my time at school I struggled academically. I couldn’t understand why – I did my best – I paid attention and revised for exams – but despite this I found that my grades never fully reflected the effort I put in.”

A portrait of Donna outside the Chrystal MacMillan building
Donna Telford

It was only just before Donna sat her GCSE’s that she was diagnosed as dyslexic by an educational psychologist. “By then it was too late to have any support measures put in place. I became disillusioned and, after achieving some mediocre exam results, I chose to leave school and seek employment.”

Now entering Year 3 of a social sciences degree at Edinburgh and planning a career as a social worker, Donna says: “I haven’t looked back since then –  the University has been great in ensuring I receive the support I require to succeed and has implemented adjustments to assist me to do so.”

For Tracey McShane, the programme meant the chance to fulfil a long-cherished dream to gain a painting degree. “From ages 13 to 15 I changed schools between Canada and England three times. In all, I went to nine different schools as I grew up. As a result, I completely lost interest and became a bit of a wild child – I was more interested in pubs, boys and drinking. I dropped out of school and moved to London at 19 and kind of fell into a job.”

A portrait of Tracey in a studio at Edinburgh College of Art
Tracey McShane

Years later, after two children and a successful career in recruitment, Tracey still longed to study art. “My job meant I had every Friday off, a full day to myself, so I attended Leith School of Art – a proper art school. I was absolutely terrified but after three terms there I realised I really, really wanted to pursue a degree in art.”

What gave Tracey’s decision its sense of urgency, however, was a girl she worked with: “She’s only young but she lives with a brain tumour. She said to me, ‘I could die at any time’. That jolted me and made me realise life is very short.”

A portrait of Rachael outside Moray House
Rachael King

For many Access students, including Tracey, part-time study makes the course possible. Programme director Rachael King has seen many students come through who have been out of formal education for three years or more. She explains that one of the programme’s great advantages for people wanting to get back into education from full-time work is that it is part-time over its one year duration. “We have options for students to attend morning, afternoon, or evening classes. Our students are all busy, many juggle childcare, work, other caring responsibilities. Some have drifted away from education, or taken the scenic route, while others have had negative experiences of education, impacting their confidence.

“We help our Access students with their UCAS forms and their personal statements really do speak for themselves – many have had to overcome adversity. Because they come to education later in life, after being in the workforce, many of our students already have highly developed and transferable skills such as time management, problem solving and team-work.

“Our students secure places at institutions such as Edinburgh, St Andrews, and Glasgow and go on to study a wide range of courses in the humanities and social sciences and art and design. This year, we are delighted to offer languages as part of our programme.”

A portrait of Zohra at George Square
Zohra O’Doherty

Zohra O’Doherty, now a Year 3 MA (Hons) Social Policy & Sociology student, worked full-time as an IT Project Manager for a private company while studying part-time on the Access Programme. “Now I work part-time in Information Services for the University while I study full-time. As mature students, we’re definitely experienced with multitasking. As I returned to higher education at the age of 30, I was a little concerned about the culture shock of moving from full-time work with peers closer to my age, to full-time study amongst peers a lot younger than me. Luckily, the diversity in age, background and interests of my cohort meant the transition to undergraduate study went a little smoother. I’ve made some wonderful friends through the programme and we are a great support system to each other as we progress with our studies.

“Studying the social sciences at this point in my life has been a great experience. I am able to make more sense of certain life experiences, apply real-life examples, and improve my outlook and understanding as I move forward with my work and studies.”

For Dawn Lawson, now studying Year 3 Scottish Literature, it was her decision to study Higher English at night school, supporting her son while he did his Higher English, that switched her on to the pleasures of studying. “I really amazed myself at how much I enjoyed it. I left school aged 16 in 1983 after really hating it from day one. I had a few O Levels but went straight into administrative work and didn’t consider further education. By the end of that Higher English course, I knew I wanted to take it further and spent three years planning how to get to university to study literature. I made enquiries and found out about the Access Programme, attended an open day, applied and was delighted – and terrified – to be offered a place.

“For me, the benefits are that I am at a stage where I have nothing to prove. I am doing this for me and the enjoyment of it.”

A portrait of Dawn sat outside 50 George Square
Dawn Lawson

Ross Morrison, now a Year 3 Archaeology & Social Anthropology student, found that taking the programme later in life gave him a love of learning he hadn’t experienced when younger. “I think the biggest obstacle for me is probably my own self-doubt – that’s why the Access course was such a big thing for me. It helped me overcome that. After the Access course it was just everything that excited me – it made me believe I was ready for university and was smart enough to be there. It gave me such confidence in my abilities I was just excited to use them.”

Like many Access students, Ross continues to work while studying, in his case in a part-time job at the University library. “I think everyone should have the same opportunities in life and ensuring higher education is accessible is a great way to do that. Learning shouldn’t be discriminatory – everyone should have that opportunity. Whenever I doubt myself and my abilities now, I just think back to graduating that course and look at my certificate. That reminds me I can do it.”

Like most of the students we talked to, Ross remains friends with many of the students he met on the programme. “I think if I didn’t have the people from the Access course it would be a little lonely at times. Because I’m older, it is harder to get to know people but joining societies is great way to break the ice and be more sociable. You just to have put yourself out there more.”

A Portrait of Ellen outside the Visitor Centre
Ellen Maloney

Ellen Maloney, now in Year 2 of Philosophy & Psychology, describes herself as “incredibly passionate about the importance of making higher education accessible”. Because of her disability, she is now studying her degree at Edinburgh on a part-time basis. Her formal education was cut short due to health problems: “I found it virtually impossible to find routes back into studying that I could manage while continuing to juggle what has become a lifelong medical condition. The Access course was my only route into undergraduate study. I just love learning, and being around people who are interested in the same ideas. Tutorials are my favourite thing because you get to discuss everything you are learning. Studying through Covid has been very isolating. Because I enjoy the interactive aspects of my course so much it has been especially difficult to stay fully engaged when it is all behind a screen!”

For Tristan Craig, working in different retail and admin jobs after school allowed him to decide what subjects he wanted to commit four years of his life to: “It’s a huge decision and I don’t think I was sure of what I wanted when I was 17. Getting my mental wellbeing to a position where I’m able to complete my studies to the best of my ability has been a long road but I really feel like I’m thriving now. I’m an ancient history student. Classics isn’t offered at the majority of state schools in Scotland – I hadn’t even heard of it before I started the programme! I think that’s quite sad because it’s such a rich area of study and I absolutely love my degree.

A portrait of Tristan in the HCA library
Tristan Craig

“I’ve also been very open about the fact that I am transgender and whilst that’s presented some of its own challenges, it’s allowed me to connect with an amazing LGBTQ+ community here. Without sounding really clichéd, I had to believe in myself as much as anyone else. Being a full-time student means I’m able to dedicate myself to studying and I’m finding it such a joy. I’d be lying if I said it never gets stressful, particularly around deadlines, but having already done the Access course and working full-time during that, I’d already learned how to manage my time. I was also excited by the prospect of all the other things I could get involved with, like student societies and volunteer work, and I’ve been really fortunate to have done all of that. The university experience is more than just your degree.

“Having admin and customer experience allowed me to gain two internships within the University which have been fantastic. Anything that comes along, I apply for because I know how hard I worked to get here and I don’t want anything to pass me by. Mature students have so much to offer with the experience they bring – we just need that opportunity.”

Rachael King agrees: “There is no reason why academic language should be on the tip of anyone’s tongue – we can teach academic skills. What we are looking for is curiosity, life experience and the ability to express yourself. People who come on the Access Programme when older have often had years of experience managing their time and overcoming difficulties – in many ways they are the heroes of education.”