Extraordinary achievements of York St John University graduate highlighted in a new national campaign to champion first generation students

100 Faces celebrates those who were the first in their families to attend university and is led by Universities UK. 

Richard Holmes graduated last year from York St John University with a BA (Hons) in Product Design. He is the creator of the groundbreaking Global Anthem – a hand gesture flashcard system that facilitates effective communication for refugees and migrants facing language barriers.

Richard is a former model-maker in the TV and film industry who was inspired to seek a new career after embarking on his product design course at York St John. His multi award winning Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) system is now being used to break down communication barriers for refugees around the world.

Richard said: “When I decided to apply to York St John University as a mature student, I was seeking fresh challenge and possibly a new direction but never imagined where it would end up taking me. The catalyst for my project was York St John’s approach to inclusivity by hosting Refugee Action York (RAY) drop-in sessions on campus. Volunteering with RAY was an eye-opening experience that ignited my passion to address the profound challenges facing refugees and migrants.

“I was inspired to create Global Anthem, a revolutionary flash card system that uses intuitive hand gestures to bridge language barriers between service users and support services.

“I need help’ are 3 words that can change a life, ‘I understand’ are 2 words that can change the world. I now have one goal – to provide free Global Anthem packs to refugee support workers around the world.”

  • UUK’s ‘100 Faces campaign’ aims to champion and celebrate the positive impact of ‘first-in–family’ (FiF) graduates on the UK – including England footballer Beth Mead, Lord David Blunkett, Nobel Prize winner Sir Chris Pissarides and actor Amit Shah – in order to highlight the need for access to support, and ensure the next generation can reach their graduate potential
  • As part of the campaign, new research reveals the transformative impact of going to university  on ambition (74%), with almost three quarters (73%) of FiF students agreeing their degree gave them the confidence to apply for jobs without feeling like an imposter 
  • The research also highlights FiF students’  reliance on depreciating financial support – without financial support, over 4 in 10 FiF graduates couldn’t have afforded to go to university at all. This is equivalent to around 1.1 million 24–40-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

These 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.

The success of students like Richard Holmes 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. Despite this inequality, FiF students flourish at university – with three quarters of FiF 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.

However, the research also pointed to the need for uplifted financial support to ensure that FiF students are able to progress. Over 4 in 10 (41%) FiF 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.”