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Access fatigue at Oxford: Letting ‘them’ in and letting ‘them’ down

Like many other state school students at Oxford, I genuinely attribute my university place to outreach initiatives. For me it was UNIQ, a summer residential, that finally convinced me that I wanted to go here. Meeting student ambassadors who were helpful and kind, but most importantly, normal, hugely demystified the media-fuelled stereotypes I previously associated with Oxford. 

Knowing that I would have never applied without the confidence that UNIQ instilled in me made me realise that I wanted to be involved with access and outreach when I was finally at Oxford. To be that same person for a quiet but bright prospective student was, to me, a way that I could demystify Oxford for someone else. As both a Student Ambassador and the Access and Outreach Representative for my college, St Peter’s, I have helped to run countless school tours, Q&As, interview support sessions, open days, and most recently the Aspire Liverpool residential for students considering applying here.

Outreach work is pivotal. It gives prospective students, from all backgrounds, the opportunity to immerse themselves in Oxford life – to look at shelves upon shelves of books about a subject they love, to ask questions that they simply haven’t had the chance to ask before. Most of the time, it’s a matter of boosting confidence and making sure they can make an informed choice when filling out UCAS.

Something I have realised recently, though, is that my own feelings towards outreach are a lot more complex than they were when I first started. Beneath the awareness that I am doing something both important and rewarding lie hints of guilt and fatigue.

This is because while I can speak honestly about some of the amazing things about Oxford to these prospective students – the tutorial system, the opportunities, the people you meet, the academic rigour – I am also aware that there is a less positive side. Many students from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds occasionally come up against uncomfortable situations at Oxford, solely because of their identity.

These moments tend to occur on a small scale, in conversations with friends or acquaintances. One of the most prominent examples of this is the relentless name-dropping of private and public schools. I completely understand being proud of where you went to school and having it be part of your identity. But at the same time, it feels exhausting when people constantly remind you that they went to one of the top fee-paying schools in the country, often whilst pointing out people in the street who also happened to go there. It just functions as a reminder that I didn’t go to one. Anna Fairweather’s recent article ‘What’s in a Name’ explores the ramifications of this even more deeply, and how it exacerbates social divides.

I’ve been explicitly told I only got my place to fulfil a ‘state school quota’ by one of my peers. I have also felt intense imposter syndrome for several terms, with lack of support from the university. These experiences are not unique. They are mere by-products of Oxford’s wider culture, inherited from its past as an institution which was characterised by snobbery, admitting only the elite. Even though there has been undeniable progress from when the university was founded, these examples alone demonstrate that there is so much further to go. They also show that the purpose of outreach shouldn’t end when we get here. Getting disadvantaged students into Oxford should involve looking after them too.

My own experience with outreach work makes me feel guilty. I recognise that this seems both backwards and contradictory – but let me explain. I feel like I’m empowering these students, only to let them down eventually. When speaking to prospective students, even though I can tell them about Oxford’s good side, I know what their experience is likely to be if they do end up getting a place. They will find themselves trapped in similar conversations about money and background, ultimately finding it harder to assimilate than some of their peers. This is a cyclical problem, as these conversations would be so much less common if Oxford was truly accessible. A problem that is solved through outreach schemes themselves.

Aside from guilt, I have felt intense responsibility. Another issue that is complex due to its inherent circularity is that it is mainly state school individuals who volunteer to help with access and outreach work. This is in large part because we feel indebted to outreach efforts ourselves, having hugely benefited from it, or because we identify with the obstacles faced by the students applying. However, the opposite often happens for privately educated students – perhaps they feel that their own experience means that they would not be qualified for  outreach work, or just that they are ‘too privileged’. I can completely understand this. It’s true that we need to be careful, especially when our ultimate goal is to undercut Oxford stereotypes. But on the flip side, should this solely be the responsibility of certain people, who are predominantly from a particular background?

This is undoubtedly a fine line to tread, but I think speaking to privately educated students at outreach events could have been helpful for me when I was applying. Student ambassadors being helpful and kind, regardless of background, makes the path to Oxford a lot easier.

In recent years, Oxford has come far in improving its diversity, but this work is nowhere near done. It can only be considered complete when the university represents the potential and drive of students from all backgrounds. I can only hope that in fifty years’ time, someone like me will be able to experience Oxford – in all its strange traditions, challenging workload, and beautiful architecture – without having to wonder when they will next walk away from a conversation having felt like an outsider, or have their ability challenged solely because of the school they went to.

Image credit: Artwork by Ben Beechener

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