As a working-class student, talk of access is particularly personal. Discussions of access in Oxford sometimes seems so abstracted, revolving around a desire to increase numbers while neglecting the duty to create an environment conducive for the people behind those numbers to thrive. The notion of Oxford being accessible brings up a myriad of emotions relating to my own experiences, and also my fears for people like me who have yet to arrive here.
Living life through working class lenses, I’ve become no stranger to the classism still very much alive within certain segments of our student population. I have been asked “how I finessed my way into Oxford” after telling someone my dad was a painter and decorator, told that my school background should have had no effect on my performance here and that my poor first year results were not related in any way, proclaimed to be “middle class now you’re at Oxford” when talking about how proud I am to be from a working-class background.
These micro-aggressions seek to completely erase my upbringing and invalidate the difficulties involved with securing a place at Oxford for someone like me. Additionally, I’ve faced more direct forms of bigotry, having been mocked for my accent multiple times. Other facets of college life such as exclusive drinking societies lead to a greater feeling of alienation for the working-class.
Although my personal experiences are echoed by other students like me, these issues are often boiled down to a failure to assimilate into the mindset of the elite. At open days, I felt pressured to simply laugh about the uncomfortable facets of life here and tell applicants they’d get used to it in the end. But this distracts from the classism that is a very real presence in Oxford. We’re told we suffer from mere imposter syndrome, and that we would fit in by simply having more self-confidence. Never has it been acknowledged that middle and upper-class students have a role to play in making us feel welcome at the university. Instead, the burden is on us working-class students to drop our accents and eccentricities in order to better assimilate with our peers.
With regards to the university’s progress in improving working class access, 12.2% of Oxford’s admitted undergraduates in 2019 came from ACORN 4 and 5, the two most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups according to the measure. This figure, which is a 3.6% increase over the proportion of ACORN 4 and 5 students admitted in 2015, is largely in line with the percentage of students from these postcodes which receive AAA or higher at A-level across all UK universities which in 2017 was 12.1%. However, ACORN is a postcode-based measure of socioeconomic disadvantaged, which might miss out working-class students who do not fall into specific postcodes. On the other hand, some middle-class students may fall into ACORN 4 and 5 postcodes, and their admission into Oxford would not spell a victory for working-class access. Oxford may be in line with other universities when it comes to accepting high achieving working-class students, but that shouldn’t be a praiseworthy outcome as it would be the bare minimum if the university were to take no positive action. If our university truly cared about getting more working-class students through the door, admissions should be more tailored to acknowledge the specific circumstances that each student is in whilst applying here.
When it comes time for college to recruit volunteers for open days, I find myself asking why, as a gay working-class man, would I recommend someone to study in a place which has made me feel so unwelcome. The complexity of the issue has made it difficult for me to turn up to access events. I’m not against making Oxford more accessible, but access events sugarcoat the reality of being a working-class student in what is still, in my experience, a highly classist and problematic environment. The Oxford touted as inclusive and accessible in open days has issues that can’t just be fixed by mere repetition of those positive labels.
When I volunteered at open day events during my first year, I found myself spewing generic lines about how inclusive Oxford is and how it is great to meet people from all walks of life, not once reflecting on the fact that as a working-class student, I have never really felt like I fit in. These events essentially present an idealised version of the working-class student experience, hiding the negative experiences that we’ve had to face throughout our time here. We’re an asset to the university only when it comes to matters of access, but are often left to feel unwelcome or like a burden. Volunteering made me complacent in sweeping issues under the rug, as I feared that revealing the faults would put students off applying, which is counterproductive towards greater diversity which the university so needs.
I would love to be that student that raves about how great and welcoming a place Oxford is, but I would be lying. But I am also aware that it would be unfair for me to volunteer at open days and tell every working-class student to run for the hills. Although issues at our university persist, voices speaking out against the inequalities faced by working-class students, such as Melanie Onovo, grow more and more vocal in advocacy, giving me a glimmer of hope for change in Oxford’s future.