First-in-the-family Leicester students front national university campaign

Connor Duffy, left, and Harry Dudson.

Two trailblazing students who had their lives transformed by the University of Leicester have been chosen to front a national campaign promoting Higher Education.

Harry Dudson and Connor Duffy have been selected alongside the likes of England footballer Beth Mead, Lord David Blunkett, Nobel Prize winner Sir Chris Pissarides and actor Amit Shah for Universities UK’s 100 Faces campaign, which celebrates the achievements of people who were the first in their family (FitF) to go to uni.

Connor’s Leicester education led to him spending a year at the South Pole on a research mission, while Harry’s has seen him go from humble beginnings as a young carer on a council estate to a medical research expert.

The success of students like Harry and Connor is testament to the extraordinary role university can play – particularly for those students who are the first in their family to attend and face significant barriers before they even set foot on campus.

Harry came from Leicester’s Saffron estate, and after spending six years studying Medicine, went on to complete a Masters in Medical Research.

He said: “I grew up in a single parent family, caring for my mum and my nan when she was given a terminal cancer diagnosis so joining a medical degree felt like the last place on Earth for me. But that experience of the healthcare system led me to medicine. I wanted to be a force for good, I just didn’t have all the necessary resources on hand to make it happen. The foundation year gave me the opportunity I needed and thankfully I’ve been able to realise my potential.

“The University has completely changed my life. Its where I met my now fiancé, got an MSc, reached thousands of underprivileged children through my widening participation work, represented in philanthropy, for welfare and now working with the Stoneygate Centre for Empathic Healthcare to continue to inspire change.

“I owe everything I am today to the University who provided this local, young, council estate, single-parented carer from Saffron Lane with a platform and a voice which has truly allowed me to make an impact and help change my life and hopefully many others.”

Connor’s Leicester education – a degree in Physics followed by a PhD in Gamma-ray Astrophysics – has led to him spending a year at the South Pole as a research scientist observing astrophysical neutrinos, better known as cosmic rays.

He said: “The isolation of winter brings with it a host of difficulties, but the experience of living and working in this environment is once-in-a-lifetime and one that I couldn't have experienced without the help of many people throughout my academic career.

“I found studying Physics exciting, enthralling and thoroughly enjoyable which brought with it the desire to do well and try even harder. Luckily, at Leicester there was a lot of like-minded students all trying equally hard. It was a great environment for learning from one another and working together to ensure that we understood and succeeded throughout the entirety of our degree.”

Joining Connor and Harry on the 100 Faces list is Leicester-born race equality campaigner, Lord Simon Woolley, who received an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from the University of Leicester, in 2023.

As part of the 100 Faces campaign, research reveals the transformative impact of going to university on ambition (74%), with almost three quarters (73%) of FitF students agreeing their degree gave them the confidence to apply for jobs without feeling like an imposter.

The research also highlights FitF students’ reliance on depreciating financial support – without financial support, over four-in-ten FitF graduates couldn’t have afforded to go to university at all. This is equivalent to around 1.1 million 24-to-40-year-olds in England and Wales.

With financial provisions dwindling and the cost of living rising, UUK is calling for government to reinstate maintenance grants and increase support for future students.

Despite the inequality FitF students can face, they flourish at university – with three quarters of FitF respondents saying that their experiences at university made them more confident and ambitious, gave them broader life experiences and crucial life skills which continue to be impactful long after graduation.

The findings come from extensive new research, commissioned by Universities UK, into the experiences of 6,004 UK graduates and 4,006 non-graduates, aged 24-40, from across the UK.

UUK’s survey also pointed to the need for uplifted financial support to ensure that FitF students are able to progress. More than four-in-ten (41%) FitF students believe that without financial assistance they wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to university, and when non-graduates from across the UK were asked what might have persuaded them to attend university, almost half (48%) responded more financial support.

Many graduates responding to this survey were eligible for non-repayable maintenance grants as students, which were replaced by repayable loans, in England in 2016, although maintenance grants continue to operate in Wales, Scotland and for some healthcare courses in England.

In light of this, UUK is campaigning to highlight the achievements of the extraordinary first in family graduates in every community, and to ensure that future generations don’t miss out on the transformative impact of a university education. 

Vivienne Stern MBE, Chief Executive of Universities UK, said: “There are those who say that too many people go to university. I disagree. These stories tell you why. In this country you are still twice as likely to go to university if you are from the wealthiest background, compared to the least wealthy. That’s not right.

“The experiences of students who are the first in their families to have been to university tell a powerful story. I am amazed by how many graduates talked about having imposter syndrome – and the way that earning a degree helped to banish that feeling. I believe we have a responsibility to keep working to ensure a wider range of people in this country get access to the potentially transformative experience of going to university. For that to happen, we really do need to see an improvement in maintenance support to support those from the least privileged backgrounds.”