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Helen Duffy

Former Access to HE student at London School of Economics

The standard of teaching on my Access to HE Diploma was the best I had experienced. My teachers managed to inject creativity into sometimes quite prescriptive assignments and made sure that there was a way to develop your own academic style.


Helen's story

I had to drop out of school in my final year due to family caring responsibilities. I spent three years working in two local cafes which I absolutely loved but I knew was temporary as I always intended to return to education when I got the opportunity.

I had a strong academic track record and just assumed that when the time came, I would return to school to complete my A Levels. I contacted Kingston College and they suggested doing an Access to Higher Education Diploma which I had never previously heard of. As soon as they described the course to me, I knew it was the perfect fit. A group of students who had made an active decision to return to education, combined with a skills-focused curriculum that really prepares you for university. My only reservation was that top universities might not recognise the value of an Access to HE Diploma, but my teacher assured me that if I proved myself on the course, I could achieve my dreams.

I loved my Access to HE course. The diversity in the cohort of students in my year made for a fantastic learning environment. We had career-changers, parents (including a few babies born that year!), people coming back to education after illness and some people who just hadn’t quite worked out what they wanted to do until now. But our thirst for education bound us all together. My peers were the best thing about the course and there was never a dull moment in class discussion. I loved sharing our different talents to all help each other.

I was lucky as the caring responsibilities that had led me to leave education previously were no longer an issue for me. However, I had to balance the course alongside work. I was at college or work seven days a week and spent most of my evenings completing coursework. However, the feedback I got from my tutors on my assignments and the knowledge that every piece of work was adding up to help me get to where I wanted to be kept me going.

The standard of teaching on my Access to HE Diploma was the best I had experienced. My teachers managed to inject creativity into sometimes quite prescriptive assignments and made sure that there was a way to develop your own academic style.

Some universities really understand the value of access and recognise that students from these courses are diverse, mature and committed. I did worry about the universities I was applying for as some of them had a low intake of Access students. For my institution of choice, London School of Economics (LSE), I had to sit an additional entrance exam which was extremely nerve wracking and I know is off-putting to students already on an intense one-year course. However, I was accepted into my first choice and since then, I have been working tirelessly to raise the profile of Access to HE students there.

Going to university as a mature student came with unique challenges but I got so much more out of the experience because of the break I had had and my experience of the Access to HE Diploma. I was well prepared for the ongoing intensity of a degree and had the confidence to talk to my professors and engage with them and grab every opportunity given to me.

The Diploma also gave me a passion for promoting further education and supporting mature students. This led me to work for the LSE Students’ Union in an elected role as the Mature and Part-Time Students Officer and I founded a society to support older students studying at LSE. I have also worked closely with the University and the widening participation team to try and increase the number of Access to HE students going to LSE. All of this enriched my university experience so much.

Since graduating from LSE I spent a year travelling around the world and returned to do a Master’s in Global Health Policy at LSE. I have now graduated with a distinction and am working in the House of Lords on health policy and legislation.

If you are thinking about taking an Access to HE Diploma then you are taking on a big challenge, but one that will open so many doors in your life and give you the freedom to pursue your passions. If you are prepared to work hard and do your best, then I cannot recommend doing an Access to HE course enough. I made friends for life in not just my course peers but my teachers and got into the university of my dreams.

It’s difficult to put into words how much doing the Access to HE Diploma meant to me. Before the course, I had some extremely difficult personal circumstances to overcome, and it feels like Access to HE gave me a chance to be the person I always knew I could be. Every opportunity that I have now started with the Diploma and I will never forget that.