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Research question

Does the first-year transition contribute to eventual awarding gaps for Black British students at Cambridge, and are there any differences in the first-year transition experience between STEM and Arts / Humanities students?


Project team

  • Davelle Reid, undergraduate student reading Medicine
  • Sien Maclean, undergraduate student reading History and Philosophy of Science
  • Bobby Mugo, undergraduate student reading History and Politics
  • Elia Chitwa, undergraduate student reading Natural Sciences


Project report

Report: First-Year Transition Project (PDF)



This project aimed to investigate the impact of first-year transitions on eventual awarding gaps, while also considering how this may differ between STEMM and Arts & Humanities courses. One of the Cycle 1 projects found an unexpected lack of difference in the awarding gap between STEMM and Arts & Humanities, warranting further investigation.

We chose to focus on four disciplines: Medicine, Natural Sciences, History & Politics, and Human, Social & Political Sciences (HSPS). As well as the members of the research group having personal insight and experience of these courses, they are all positioned as hegemonic degrees at the University of Cambridge. The reputation of Medicine and Natural Sciences as staple STEMM courses, and HSPS's position as a course with one of the largest numbers of Black students, allowed for a richer investigation.

Interviews with students and staff allowed for individualised and enriched narratives on awarding gaps. They were conducted with three students per subject, and one staff member per subject.

The findings confirmed that the first year is almost unanimously considered the most strenuous year for Black students at Cambridge. While it cannot be said that this concretely contributes to awarding gaps, there is truth to the notion that first-year transitions tend to affect Black students negatively both socially and academically.

In relation to the STEMM vs Arts / Humanities facet of this investigation, a common finding was that students considered STEMM to be more challenging and demanding, which may contribute to larger awarding gaps for STEMM students trying to balance this against the strain of the first-year transition.