University and United team up to increase access to education for fans of the beautiful game

  • Fans, players and staff at Cambridge United who have no higher education qualifications are being offered full bursaries to study with the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education
  • The ‘United in Learning’ programme is one of several being introduced to widen access to adult education in Cambridge

A former Cambridge United footballer and a lifelong fan have both started courses at Cambridge University through a new bursary scheme that, with the help of the football club, aims to widen access to adult education within the local community.

Fan Neil Weston and ex-player Samuel Squire are the first students to join “United in Learning” – a newly-launched programme at the University’s Institute of Continuing Education (ICE). The programme offers full bursaries to adults who have not previously been to university, enabling them to study either for their own personal development, or to develop their careers.

The initiative has been set up through a partnership between ICE, which runs courses for adults, and the Cambridge United Community Trust (CUCT), the charitable arm of Cambridge United Football Club.

It is one of several programmes that ICE is currently implementing to widen access to the university’s adult courses, particularly among groups of people who could benefit from further study, but, for various reasons, tend not to apply. A number of the programmes are being run in collaboration with organisations that, like CUCT, have strong community outreach links, and can help to maximise their impact.

Through United in Learning, anyone associated with Cambridge United – whether fans, players, or staff – can apply for a bursary that covers the full costs of any Undergraduate Certificate course at ICE. More than 15 different subjects are available for study, including Sociology, Coaching, Cognitive Psychology, and Business and Management. All of the courses are flexible and part-time, and no previous qualifications are required.

Neither Neil nor Samuel – both of whom have just commenced their courses – has been to university. Samuel, 19, is a former Cambridge United first-team squad member who had his sights set on a career in football until he was released from the playing staff earlier this year, and is currently playing semi-professionally with a view to working his way up the football pyramid. He said that he was “lost for words” when was accepted on to the programme, and described the first few days at Madingley Hall near Cambridge, where ICE is based, as “a few of the best of my life.”

Neil, 41, is a former civil servant who was unable to study when he was younger because of mental health difficulties. He called the programme an “amazing opportunity” and urged other fans to consider it.

While it is hoped that the bursaries will benefit many different types of people, one aim is to encourage more men to consider continuing education – men are currently under-represented, compared with women, by a ratio of approximately two to one.

Samuel joined Cambridge United when he was eight, and was released in May this year. Although he submitted an application for a United in Learning bursary, he never dreamed that he would be accepted. “I was on holiday when I found out and I was lost for words,” he said. “I genuinely thought they had contacted the wrong person.”

He is studying for an Undergraduate Certificate in Coaching, which he hopes will enable him to develop a career in sport, either in a coaching or mentorship role, or similar. “I was nervous that it would be overwhelming, but straight away I felt like I got on with everyone,” he added. “The teaching is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. After a few days my mind was clearer than I think it’s ever been, I was just buzzing with ideas.”

Neil, a lifelong fan of Cambridge United, struggled with depression as a young man, which prevented him from going to university. After a career in the civil service, he qualified as a counsellor in 2013, and is using his bursary to study for an Undergraduate Certificate in Cognitive Psychology to support his professional development.

“It’s a fantastic place to study,” he said. “When you are a counsellor you do a lot of solitary work, so it’s really beneficial to spend time with the other students. I’d encourage other fans to look at what this could do for them: it’s an amazing opportunity to take advantage of what we have on our doorstep here in Cambridge.”

Both students hope that by sharing their experiences, they will encourage more people to enrol at ICE, or to explore other personal and professional development opportunities. Samuel is also a United in Learning ‘ambassador’, and will be working directly with groups of people who are currently under-represented in higher education to build awareness of the value of ongoing education and training.

James Gazzard, Director of ICE, said: “This is a really exciting bursary programme and we hope that Neil and Samuel will be the first of many students to make use of it. At the moment, some of the people who would benefit most from adult education, at any age, are also those who are least represented within it. By working closely with community groups like CUCT, and with the help of student ambassadors who can tell others about the importance of lifelong learning, we hope to reach many more people in Cambridge and the wider region.”

Sam Gomarsall, Cambridge United Community Trust Manager, said: “To give fans, players and coaches at Cambridge United the chance to study at the University is a really important step. This is a city that has been named, for two years, as the most unequal in the UK. We know that we have the resources in Cambridge to turn this around, and partnerships like this, that extend education opportunities to more people in our community, are part of that process.”

Further details about all of the bursaries available at ICE, including the United in Learning bursaries, can be found at: