Working class council estate kids like myself don’t fit into Oxford. Or so I thought. The Foundation Year programme is a new initiative introduced by Lady Margaret Hall this year, and is the only one of its kind at Oxford. It selects talented students who show great potential from the most deprived areas of the UK, and from schools whose students do not tend to progress into academic higher education institutions, and gives them a year of Oxford teaching, free of charge, to equip them to then apply for degree courses at top universities. As Trinity term draws to a close, it seems the appropriate time to reflect on my, and the programme’s, first year. To be perfectly honest with you, this has been the most confusing, weird, yet wonderful journey of my life.
Growing up, I was taught in no uncertain terms to despise the middle and upper classes. I never thought I would look at someone who studied at Harrow, or Eton, and think to myself, “I’d get on incredibly well with you”. But everyone who I have met here has been wonderful. The stereotypes are just exactly that: stereotypes. The guys who I initially considered to be public school toffs have, to my surprise, became some of my closest friends.
The biggest surprise was how different Oxford turned out to be from what I had expected. Yes, there is a large proportion of what you would call the ‘elite’. But I have been touched by how well we all got on, regardless of how diff erent we are. I thought I would be judged for my back-ground, but in reality, I have ended up loving many, and, perhaps, also being loved by many myself. The majority of the staff , and all the stu-dents of LMH, as well as the wider Oxford community, have helped the foundation students in some extraordinary ways throughout this journey. It has made me realise that the support and aid that you get at this place is beyond any spectrum of sheer excellence. The foundation year has given me, and others, so many opportunities. We’ve been able to meet and question politicians, Supreme Court judges, world-renowned scientists, barristers, newspaper editors, and many more. It has opened doors and provided connections in fi elds far beyond the academic. Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. The foundation year has had some teething problems—as many pilot programmes do—for example with its structure and teaching style.
Furthermore, I have discovered, as I think many students do, that there is a pressure in Oxford to spend every hour of the day working, and if you can’t manage that, to at least appear like you are. It’s an unhealthy ideal, and not one that I see many people enjoy. I have also seen some variability in the teaching quality. It may rank highly for research and employability, but it’s no big surprise that Oxford comes only 47th for student satisfaction, according to The Complete University Guide’s rankings. So the foundation year has ended up being a personal journey, as much as an academic one. I’m not yet fully convinced that a full Oxford degree is for me—though the majority of my fellow foundation year students are very much looking forward to progressing on to an undergraduate degree. But is the Foundation Year programme a good idea? Yes, despite its problem and its flaws, I definitely think so. An entire year of training and personally tailored academic help to make sure that Oxford no longer scrapes against the fingertips, but instead becomes well within the reach, of students like myself is a priceless gift. Oxford is renowned for being one of the greatest academic institutions in the world, from far into the past, to the present day. But if it wants to maintain this prestigious status, the selection process has to be altered, and the Foundation Year is a huge step in the right direction.
The university is missing out on students with enormous potential, who never even consider applying, or believe they are unwor-thy of a place. Many of these students, including the ones on the Foundation Year, have undergone difficulties in their lives which have prevented them from reaching their full academic potential. LMH has got the ball rolling, but it’s on the shoulders of other colleges to carry on from this, and begin their own foundation years. But in order to get students from under-privileged background to apply, the stereotypes of Oxford need to be eliminated. The main way of doing that is by reaching out to students in colleges and sixth forms across the country, and showing them what Oxford is really about. In my own case, it took several phone calls from our principal Alan Rusbridger to get me to come along. I remember how he ended our final phone call saying (in the calmest tone of voice I have ever heard), “for fuck’s sake, just come along”. And so I did. And I met what I consider to be the greatest bunch of people. The kindest, welcoming and most gracious people, who embraced me for who I am, and treated me no different from anyone else. I wish I could give all of their names a mention. However, this is Oxford, and I only have a limited word count, and another essay due in at 5pm. I hope they all know who they are.
To any applicants considering the Foundation Year, or Oxford in general, who believe they are underserving and would never fit in, I would say this.I came from a poor background. I grew up in a bad environment, where horrible things happened almost every day. Yet I managed to get to school on time, and get my homework done each night, and ended up receiving an offer from Oxford. I am by no means special, and I don’t care who contests that fact. I am not a wonder kid, and neither do I think I am particularly intelligent. What I am is a hard worker. And I work hard because hard is what life threw at me. If I can do it, the girl or the boy who lives down the road from me can also do it. Being scared means nothing. Having self-belief is everything.