The Dobson Free Places Fund

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The vision

Real-world problems, ambitious solutions

St John’s has long prioritised financial support for students from low-income households, recognising that it often determines their access to higher education and their ability to realise their full personal and academic potential. In 2021 St John’s took its boldest step yet, launching the ground-breaking Dobson Free Places Fund in response to nationwide reductions in social mobility, growing student debt, and narrowing access to university education. 

Named in honour of the College’s much-admired 44th Master, Sir Christopher Dobson, the Dobson Free Places Fund is one of the most ambitious initiatives of its kind in UK higher education. Through this scheme St John’s will provide 40 fully- funded places to some of the UK’s most talented undergraduates from low-income households. This will be achieved through the creation of an endowed fund of £25 million, permanently broadening access to world-class education, opportunity and student support at St John’s.

The ultimate goal is to ensure that St John’s can fully support the wellbeing of its students, releasing the College and those who study here from the pressures and vagaries of government policy change. In short, we want to be able to say confidently to any talented student: we want you, and money won’t be a barrier.

How does it work? 

Each free place covers maintenance costs and tuition fees for the entirety of an undergraduate degree for ‘Home’ students and those with settled status. Accommodation, food, travel, course materials and co-curricular enrichment are all considered and reflected in the final award, ensuring total financial security to the recipient for the duration of their studies. This is essential as beneficiaries come to St John’s from backgrounds with low household incomes (currently a maximum of £17,628 per annum), experience of free school meals and having often overcome exceptional circumstances in their journey to higher education – holding long-term care-giving roles, for example, or having been brought up in care themselves.

The importance of this support to our students is evidenced by the pioneering Studentship Scheme, which since 2016 has provided more than 830 awards to those from low and middle-income backgrounds. What distinguishes Dobson Free Places is that they are supported by an endowed fund of £25 million, permanently ring-fenced within the College’s operational budget, with interest from the fund sustaining 40 free places in perpetuity. This will have a transformational impact, enabling St John’s to provide sustainable, world-class support to our students for generations to come. 

Real progress is being made

The outpouring of support received for the Dobson Free Places Fund has been astounding, and we are immensely grateful to each of the 1,500 Johnians and friends of the College who have given towards it so far. You are making a real difference, and we are thrilled to report that, on 31 March 2024, the total raised for Dobson Free Places surpassed the halfway mark, taking the total to more than £13 million. With this support it has been possible to launch the Free Places scheme on a pilot basis, and to welcome the very first beneficiaries to St John’s in October 2023. Their studies continue apace, and we will be pleased to introduce you to some of them during Giving Day. 

The challenges

Barriers to attainment

For top-tier UK universities, the cost of a three-year undergraduate degree is now more than £60,000, several times the annual household income of many families. This debt burden is often a considerable barrier, preventing students from applying entirely or – if they do secure a place – from realising their full potential. Anxieties around tuition and living costs, the need to juggle paid work with substantial academic commitments, and an inability to engage with sources of extracurricular enrichment - such as sports and societies - commonly impact progress and attainment. 

Many students also feel pressured to return home during vacations to minimise costs, rather than pursuing valuable work experience or research and learning opportunities like their peers. By freeing students from their financial concerns and providing a stable environment in which they can flourish, Dobson Free Places will help nurture generations of leaders, thinkers and doers, and equip them with the skills and knowledge needed to make their own positive impact on the world. 

Retaining and nurturing UK talent  

As globalisation intensifies, competition for talent between leading educators continues to expand. UK social mobility charities report increasing numbers of students opting for generous scholarship programmes at international universities, many of whom can provide education practically free of cost to those with household incomes below £45,000. This ‘brain drain’ is concerning, and higher education institutions in the UK must urgently improve the provision of support for students if they are to retain their leading role on the international stage.

The Dobson Free Places Fund addresses these challenges, providing talented students from low-income backgrounds with the opportunity to enjoy a fully-supported environment right here in the UK. We believe that the sheer ambition and scale of the initiative will have a galvanising effect on other institutions, encouraging them to follow suit and providing a roadmap for them to do so. 

The time is now

No better time to give

This bold initiative has been made possible by a £14 million commitment from an anonymous foundation, which has pledged to double each and every gift made to the Dobson Free Places Fund. It’s an historic opportunity, but it’s also time-limited; to uphold our side of the deal, St John’s must raise £2–3 million for free places each year until spring 2027. This is no small feat. The great news is that, as of 31 March 2024, we have successfully hit our first two targets and are now more than halfway to our overall aim of £25 million – all through the generosity of alumni and friends like you. As a community we must maintain our resolve and momentum to bring this once-in-a-generation journey to a successful close. Your support has never been more needed or appreciated, and its positive impact on the lives and futures of our students cannot be underestimated.

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