The very role of Access Oï¬ƒcer exists in order to ensure that someone’s socio-economic background should have no inï¬‚uence on their time as a student. Regardless of heritage, family income, the quality of their secondary school education or the desirability of their postcode, Access Oï¬ƒcers strive to place all students on as equal a footing as possible when they apply to university. It can generally be agreed upon that their work is invaluable in ï¬ghting institutionalised prejudice. Not only that, but Access Oï¬ƒcers also combat the widely accepted stereotypes of what the typical Oxford student should be. They are there, fundamentally, to facilitate access to the University itself for those who are challenged by institutional discrimination.
Why then should we tolerate prejudice against potential Access Oï¬ƒcers on the very grounds that they are there to combat? For me, a large and extremely positive part of my experience at Oxford has been erasing the inverted snobbery I had cultivated before arriving. The idea that some people are ‘too posh’ can all too easily establish an ‘us-and-them’ mentality amongst students. It doesn’t take much for, let’s say, a student from a poorly performing state school to ï¬ nd certain aspects of Oxford life intimidating and even unpleasant. To reinforce this by saying that a privileged student can’t qualify as a proactive supporter of access at this University could fortify divides and create new ones.
It’s embarrassing to admit that I had such an attitude of inverted snobbery when I ï¬rst came to Oxford, one which was neither justiï¬ ed nor helpful, and did nothing to add to my experience as a student.
After overcoming this mindset, I was told by friends from more privileged backgrounds (for want of a better word) that they too were aware of this perceived division and were equally intimidated by it at times. If anything, this proves that we need even more support for and involvement in access programmes from all students – to prove that we’re all in this together, instead of in separate teams working only for our respective sides.
We are, or should be, uniï¬ed as students together at the same University, and it’s time to start acting like it. What better way to do this than to stop drawing unnecessary divisions between ourselves?
Admittedly, it is hard to deny that a disproportionately large number of the Oxford student body are from privileged backgrounds. This disproportion is not just visible in the past education of students – it’s also remarkable when it comes to race, region and socio-economic background. But does a student’s privilege make them any less academically talented, any less interesting, any less of a good person?
Ultimately, Access Oï¬ƒcers work on levelling the playing ï¬eld, not in trying to strip privileged applicants of their merits, but in giving less privileged applicants the chance to perform and achieve unfettered by institutional prejudice. As such, being an Access Oï¬ƒcer should be an option open, like that of studying at Oxford, to anyone willing and able to fulï¬ l the necessary criteria.
To imply that privileged individuals in any respect could or should not have such a role makes the role of Access Oï¬ƒcer in itself a privilege. Implying an individual should or could not achieve as well as another because of something as unchangeable asof their background goes against everything access programmes stand for.
Tjoa Shze Hui
At first, I found this debate a difficult one to come down on with any measure of decisiveness. Just two days ago, I was certain that I wanted to write an argument for the ‘yes’ side, detailing why privilege shouldn’t stop anyone from speaking out on issues of importance, or from trying to make the University a better place for everyone here. For it seemed to me that the opposite would prove fatally enervating when taken to its logical conclusion. If one were not allowed to take action on any problem falling outside the realms of personal experience, then wouldn’t a huge chunk of student advocacy here at Oxford become discredited? Wouldn’t many campaigners march about without any recourse to public support, and most transnational activism fall flat on its face?
It was only later, when I tested these abstract arguments against my friends, that I came to see them as dire pronouncements trumpeted from the tail end of a slippery slope, sexy but irrelevant to the specific situation of access and Access Officers in Oxford. The point of debate here is not on whether students from privileged backgrounds can or should speak out on issues of justice and access; like everyone else, they certainly have some measure of freedom to advocate for things that are good.
The real question is whether serving as Access Officers is the most effective way for these students to accomplish their desired end, and make a positive impact on university life. My answer to that specific question must be a firm and resounding no.
At the most basic level, this has to do with the scope of the Access Officer’s job, which revolves around the delicate art of persuasion. At outreach events, Access Officers have to paint their colleges as friendly and welcoming to students who have never met an Oxonian before in the flesh, let alone thought about graduating as one. Arguably, their persuasive techniques would seem vastly more convincing if they were able to embody their own claims about accessibility, and not merely dole out success stories in vague and theoretical terms.
Truth be told, any Access Officer who urges terrifying leaps of faith without having personally taken one themselves is likely to come across as insincere, difficult to relate to, and sweetly insulated from the realities of state school life; at worst, they might even perpetuate the impression that Oxford is only for ‘posh people’ like themselves, and unwittingly leave fence-sitters persuaded in the wrong direction.
In my opinion, electing a privileged Access Officer would only be justified if more suitable candidates were lacking, unwilling to speak up, or rendered voiceless by some other means. But in Oxford none of these situations holds true. Plenty of successful applicants come in each year from non-traditional feeder schools and, typically, each round of elections sees at least one candidate highlighting the relevance of their own experiences in a bid for the job. In this situation, then, to let the more privileged speak up in the name of an ‘oppressed minority’ would be akin to talking over said minority voices, while willfully ignoring the fact their own voices are still in good working order.
The issue at stake here is that of suitability for a collegiate position in limited supply. Since only one, two or at most a handful of people get to call themselves Access Officers each year, it’s of vital importance that this role goes to the people who have the most relevant experience, and are thus likely to do the better job.