New online programme launched to help more people into healthcare degrees

The project aims to support people from underrepresented groups access university, and is particularly seeking mature applicants

nowpas lead

A new project that aims to increase the number of people from underrepresented groups entering healthcare degrees has launched at the University of Sheffield.

The research has focused around the development of the Network of Online Widening Participation Access Schemes (NOWPAS), a programme helping young people from underrepresented groups progress into health-related higher education courses such as medicine, nursing and midwifery, orthoptics and human sciences.

Last year, a pilot of the programme supported 26 people through their applications to university, with 56% of those who provided feedback being awarded offers to their chosen course. This included one programme candidate who proceeded onto an optometry course.

This year, the programme has expanded to support 80 people with ambitions of a future career in healthcare to navigate the application processes for health-related degrees at universities across the UK.

The programme was developed by Adam Holder, a dentist and academic clinical fellow from the University of Sheffield’s School of Clinical Dentistry, and was designed to complement the university’s existing outreach projects.

The programme focuses on health-related courses for several reasons, Mr Holder told OT, explaining: “Firstly, many health focused courses experience some of the largest attainment gaps of any university degree, and secondly because these courses are often some of the most competitive to access for applicants from any background.

“Finally, because I'm a health professional myself and I was from an underrepresented background, it feels right to try and give back and help others.”


Funded by a grant from Health Education England, the programme will assist current A-level or college students, and is also particularly seeking applications from mature students, (aged over 21 years) who may not have previously had the opportunity to consider university.

“There are many excellent health professionals who started their higher education studies aged 21 or older,” Mr Holder commented. “The fact that a university applicant is not 18 or 19-years-old should not be a barrier to them.”

“We recognise that health-related courses such as optometry, orthoptics, and others are viewed in high regard by mature applicants for many reasons,” Mr Holder explained. These can be because these professions are “respected and fulfilling” as well as offering strong job prospects after graduating.

Much of the university application advice is focused around A-level students and while this can be relevant to mature applicants, Mr Holder highlighted that they can sometimes be unaware of the specific advice available for them.

“An aim of the NOWPAS programme is to provide a wider ranging overview of the application process, regardless of an applicant's age or background, and this hopefully will enable mature applicants to be better informed and feel supported in their application,” he added.

The online programme has been established particularly for people interested in studying a health-related course at university, but who may not be able to engage with the existing support programmes. This could be for reasons such as not having the resources to travel to skills sessions, or little experience of navigating the application process.

Mr Holder said of the platform: “I wanted to find a way to increase accessibility to universities such as Sheffield for those even harder-to-reach applicants. These could be individuals who are highly motivated and academically able, but they may experience barriers which other university applicants might not.”

Being an online-based programme means participants can access the programme wherever and whenever it is convenient. Mr Holder suggests this makes the programme more available and accessible to a wider range of people.

“We hope that by bringing the programme to the prospective students, it will provide more opportunities for more people,” he added.

The programme will include offering online assistance with university applications, holding virtual education sessions, and linking to university information. The platform will also provide students with an easier access to attend virtual open days, practice interviews, on-campus tours and educational sessions using virtual reality technology.

The research project into the NOWPAS programme will continue evaluating different methods of educational intervention, aiming to increase the number of successful applicants into health-related higher education.

Places on the project for sixth form and college students are by invitation only, however mature applicants are encouraged to apply to the NOWPAS teams.