Lower Socioeconomic Background Students Guide

Full credit to be given to the SU Class Act Campaign, Charlotte Morgan and all other student volunteers that helped put it together.

Disclaimer: This guide has been complied by current Oxford Students and to the best of their knowledge, is accurate. However there may have been changes since publication. If you would like current advice about the information here or any welfare issue, please contact advice@oxfordsu.ox.ac.uk

You worked so hard to get to Oxford, and more than deserve your place. It can be hard as Oxford can feel like it isn’t ‘designed’ for people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a just as good and if not, more rewarding, time at the university. This advice is here to help you as much as possible!

A lot of the information on this page has been taken directly from the Class Act Academic Guide, which contains more information on top of what has been written here, and definitely worth a read:

https://www.oxfordsu.org/resourcehandler/35368ba8-ddcd-4888-9be3-b607d4ba6bc1

Before getting to Oxford

Getting things beforehand (what you actually need to have) and where you can buy it cheap:

  • Household stuff e.g. Bedding, towels etc - supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury’s and places like Wilko usually have inexpensive products like this, as well as Argos. Most colleges have a list of things that they provide (e.g. duvets, washing powder) and it is not worth buying anything that the college already has. It is also worth spending some money (if you can afford it) getting a couple of room decorations, just to make you feel more at home while away. Dunelm Mill also has a 10% student discount, even though it's not on Unidays or well advertised.

  • Depending on college, some kitchen stuff like cutlery, microwaveable dishes etc. are all useful to have, if you ever want to eat in your room rather than in the hall. Some colleges also allow a microwave and kettle, which can be bought cheaply again at supermarkets, Argos or Wilko. Do some research about what kitchen facilities (if any) are provided at your college, but also check the pricing of catering at college, as it is often subsidised and low income students may have discounts on top of that. This means that it can be cheaper than being self-catered (so less kitchen things are required). 

  • Stationery: important to have the essentials like pens, paper, diaries etc. All can be bought from highstreet shops like Wilko or Supermarkets but also online if desired.

  • Clothes: do not worry about not having the newest, shiniest clothes, this is not something to stress about. It is worth getting some formal clothes, as Oxford does enjoy a formal event (but formal does not have to mean expensive). You can still get clothes in cheaper stores, such as supermarket clothes sections or H&M, which are usually pretty good, and you will end up wearing them quite a few times a term.

  • Bike: If you can cycle, getting a bike secondhand is a good investment. Also, if you have a bike, you can travel further to the cheaper stores. Having a bike is also useful if you’re into sport, as some of the distances to sports grounds can be quite far by foot.

  • Bulk buying beforehand is a shout, because a lot of cheap stores, such as Aldi and Lidl, are not near the centre. Getting long-life things that you will use over term will be cheaper for you in the long-term. There is also a Tesco Metro very nearby lots of colleges (in Magdalen Street) which is a convenient place to buy affordable food (such as a £3 meal deal!)

  • Don’t get too caught up in the Uni hauls you may see on YouTube, you do not need that much stuff for university. Remember you are only there 2 months at a time, so you do not need a full bedroom. And anyway, if you have forgotten something you can always buy it in Oxford once you’re here!

  • Buying things second hand is definitely the way to go forward! A lot of people have finished their degree by the time you are coming up, so there are often a lot of secondhand uni things going around, like books, room accessories etc.

  • You can also get creative to get the things you need. Use any big bag for life, or ikea bags as laundry baskets, old mugs or glasses as pencil holders and use free photo printing sites (FREE PRINTS!!!) to print out photos to decorate your room.

  • For Freshers events - Do not worry about buying tickets beforehand. You can buy things on the night, and it often works out cheaper as you are only buying things you are definitely going to. 

Getting a Gown: 

All Oxford students have to buy a certain type of gown (depending on degree level etc) that is worn to some formal dinners, for exams, ‘Master collections’ and also for the matriculation ceremony at the beginning of the year. 

  • The commoners gown is the gown every undergraduate student wears, unless they have been elected to a scholarship for academic performance/musical ability. 

  • There are a number of shops in Oxford that sell the sub fusc (academic dress), including Walters, Shepherd and Woodward, and The Varsity Shop. Most of them do deals, including the gown, ribbon/tie/bow tie and mortar board for a reasonable price - c. £24.99 - which means buying it doesn’t have to break the bank! 

  • Don’t stress about sizing before you come up - you just tell a staff member at the shop that you need to buy sub fusc, and they will make sure that you get the right size gown (which is based more on height.)

  • Some colleges organise trips to these shops in Freshers week, so it is worth keeping an eye out for these trips if you are stressed about it.

  • Because of coronavirus, the matriculation is going to be held online this year, meaning that there is less of a hurry to buy the gown and full outfit (blouse/shirt, dark trousers/skirt, ribbon/tie/bow tie etc) which is worn with the gown for matriculation and for exams.

Reading lists before you arrive:

  • It can feel daunting having a massive reading list in front of you, especially if there is no way of accessing the required books before coming to Oxford without buying them. However, unless specified otherwise (and you can always email staff members to check), the reading list is not normally compulsory and you won’t be expected to have gone through the entire list.

  • A good option is to buy books second hand - World of Books, Abebooks, Amazon (used)  and Ebay are all good options to get books for cheaper prices (and this also is relevant for buying books throughout the course of your degree). Some subjects, such as Modern Languages and English have both primary texts and secondary texts on the reading list. Of the two, there is much more of a need to buy primary books than the secondary books, as these are often easy to find in either your college library or faculty library.

  • You can also look on the FB marketplace for students selling books needed for your course.

  • Join FB groups for your specific course, if they exist, because students often sell their old books on there, for cheap prices.

  • Note though, that the reading list is not compulsory, and you will not be expected to buy all the books on a 50 book long list. Once you arrive at uni, most books will be available in the libraries.

Extra Funding:

If you are struggling to afford anything beforehand, do not be afraid to get in contact with your college. Quite often, there is some extra money lying around which is not advertised, but they can quite often give you some extra financial support. It is worth getting means-tested beforehand though, because it is a lot easier for them to give you money based on household income. 

Cultural Capital

Cultural capital refers to the skills and knowledge that people gain due to their educational, family or class background which are more respected in our society. For example, schools with smaller class sizes may offer more opportunities for students to articulate their ideas, honing a skill valued in higher education and the job market. Cultural capital, much like economic capital, is not distributed equally: middle- or upper-class students, those who have been privately educated or those whose family have been to university are often afforded more cultural capital. Of course, this isn’t fair and can sometimes be extremely disheartening.

Current students have spoken about experiencing a culture shock when they first arrived at Oxford and found it initially difficult to adjust. Others felt intimidated by their more privileged (and, sometimes, more comfortable and confident) peers, particularly in academic situations like tutorials, classes and lectures. We aren’t saying you will definitely experience this or feel at a disadvantage, but if you ever do, here are some things that are important to remember:

  1. Firstly, you are not on your own. Oxford may not always be the most diverse place, but there are many students feeling the same way as you - students in your college and in your lectures, maybe even in the same tutorials and classes as you!
  2. There are also Oxford academics who have gone through similar struggles and have not only come out the other end, but are now being paid to teach and write about their subject!
  3. Whilst your background might not have given you as much cultural capital, your experiences will have taught you different lessons, given you unique skills and a unique perspective that someone who is more privileged will not have. These skills and perspectives will be useful in many areas of the Oxford experience – whether that’s in your social life, extracurricular activities, budgeting or your academic work.
  4. Last but not least, and this might sound cheesy, but you are enough. You are good enough, regardless of how much cultural capital you do or don’t have. No matter what happens from now on, you have got into Oxford University and let no one take that achievement away from you.

Advice for the first few weeks at Oxford:

  • It can all feel quite overwhelming in your first few weeks, especially as it can feel like you’re suddenly thrown in at the deep-end with loads of events, new people and of course the workload to get used to.

  • Some good advice would be to definitely not feel pressured into having to go to every single event during Freshers’ week, and taking some time to yourself if it all feels a bit much.

  • Try and make use of college parents/subject representatives, as they’re there to support you and help make the transition smoother.

  • Each college has a social backgrounds/access rep, who you can go to for support. This can be particularly useful because the student is probably from a similar background and will know what challenges you may be facing.

  • Don't set your expectations too high for the first few weeks or even term. We all find our feet at different times and it sometimes takes at least one or two terms to find people you start really clicking with.

Social Interactions:

  • There are a lot of potential culture shocks when arriving in Oxford, especially in terms of discussing everyone’s lifestyles. It can be difficult discussing fancy holidays and buying expensive things when that is something you may have never had access to. 

  • The important thing is to remember you are not alone, and you shouldn’t see yourself as an outsider because of this! There are loads of people in Oxford in the same situation as you, and that's why finding other people of similar backgrounds, through things such as Class Act, can really help you!

  • Just keep being yourself, you do not have to change any part of yourself in social situations, and if anybody judges you for your background, they are definitely not worth it.

  • Sometimes you may feel pressure to come across more ‘intelligent’ in social interactions, but this is something you really should not judge yourself on. Cultural capital includes being used to casual academic discussion, so it does not mean you are any less smart if you do not understand the social intellectual discussions going on around you. If you do however want to learn more about things you're interested in but don't know how to get started - the London Review of Books have a podcast series you can listen to, go and visit museums and art galleries (a lot have free entry for students) and just read about them on Wikipedia so you have some ideas about literary/art/political movements, read the news, attend talks and lectures that are given around Oxford, join societies and try new things and just have fun - learn more to enrich yourself because knowledge is a great thing but if that's not your thing, don't put pressure on yourself to be interested in things you don't care about.

  • It is also important to remember that even people you may consider to come from ‘Traditional’ Oxford Backgrounds are often feeling out of place, or have ‘Imposter’s syndrome’ as well. While this may make less sense for you, it can be reassuring that even people with the cultural capital built for Oxford are also wondering why they are there, and so your feelings are completely valid.

  • If you are feeling alienated by a discussion, making a light-hearted joke about how you do not know what they are talking about can help inform others that you feel excluded, without making it awkward.

  • One of the great things about university is making friends from all sorts of backgrounds, including friends who went to private/independent schools. You are bound to make loads of friends, whatever their past experiences are.

Interactions in tutorials:

  • It can be a real shock when having a tutorial etc with someone from a more privileged background who can appear more confident, it can often lead to feelings of inadequacy. This is totally normal.

  • Do not be afraid to speak out in tutorials. Tutors should recognise your different cultural capital, and you will be surprised how good they are at considering the quality of your ideas in tutorials, and not caring so much how you present these ideas verbally.

  • Imposter syndrome is very common and if you’re feeling it reach out straight away, it’s so important to remember that everyone at oxford deserves a place and the interviewers thought you intellectually worthy. You are no less deserving of your place than your peer in the tutorial, regardless of how confident they may seem/well they present their ideas.

  • If you are struggling academically, you can always book sessions with the Oxford Study Skills Centre - they can help you with organising your time, creating a routine, essay skills, revision skills, anything related to studying.

Subject-Specific Support:

  • In some subjects, you may be less prepared for the course than other students due to your different teaching opportunities.

  • For example, if you are in a science subject which has lab work, you may have not had access to the same lab equipment as other students, and therefore may be a little bit more confused to begin with in the lab environment.

  • The important thing in these kinds of situations is knowing it is okay to ask! You are not expected to know everything when you walk in, and nobody is going to judge you for needing the help the first few times you do something. It is not a sign of lack of intelligence, it just means there may be a little bit more catch up going on when you first arrive.

Accents and Language:

  • Having a regional accent may make you feel like you stick out a bit in Oxford and feel a little less confident in conversation (especially in an academic environment.)

  • It is important to remember that your accent and how you speak does not make you any less smart than other people in the university who may be considered more ‘well-spoken’.

  • While it is easier said than done, do not let anyone make you feel less deserving of being in Oxford as a result of how you speak. If people are talking down to you, stop talking to them and letting them make you feel inferior. 

  • There is a difference between laughing with you about the strength of your accent, and laughing at you for having an accent, so on the other hand, do not get too worried if people start talking about how you speak, because it is not necessarily an attack on you.

Going to fancy events: 

  • It is no secret that Oxford holds its fair share of fancier events, such as formals and balls and things like that. It is common to feel out of place, but it does get easier! What helps a lot of students is going with people you feel comfortable with and who understand you have not been to many events like this before, and you should be able to get a lot out of these events!

  • Oxford also has loads of weird traditions which most people are unfamiliar with- do not be afraid to just ask! It does not make you inferior or less deserving to be there.

  • Sometimes it can feel difficult to know what to wear for stuff e.g formals, club nights so don’t eel afraid to ask someone like your college’s access/class/social backgrounds rep. It is also important to remember that a lot of people around you are going through a similar thing, and wouldn’t judge you if you ask.

Join Societies:

  • There are loads of societies where you can find people from a similar background, and this can be reassuring when you are feeling a culture clash at the university and maybe feeling a bit lonely.

  • For example, there is the Northerners society and different cultural societies (such as ACS (African-Caribbean Society), OUAPS (Oxford University Asia-Pacific Society), Oxford First Gen Society and faith societies - there are lots of options!)

  • The SU Class Act Campaign also runs events where you can meet people from similar social backgrounds, and is a great way to get more support if you are struggling. You can find out more information about what the campaign is doing on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/oxfordsuclassact/?ref=page_internal

Managing your Finances

Budgeting with Living Costs

Oxford is an undeniably expensive city, but it is quite possible to live cheaply, even in central Oxford.

  • Budget: Either by allocating yourself a specific amount of money per month or week, or by keeping track of your spending with a spreadsheet. Templates for student finance spreadsheets are available all over the internet and these can be a godsend. If you need to budget, it is a lot easier to budget from the start and stick to it. Separate your food budget as well from your social budget. Monzo accounts are also really easy to set up and help you stick to your budget!

  • Food: A lot of colleges will have kitchens available to cook for yourself, as well as catering facilities which often subsidise meals. Eating in college is much cheaper than going out, and often much more social too. Generally though, if you do have kitchen facilities, self-catering is usually the cheapest option, especially when buying from the larger supermarkets which are less central. Buying veggie as well tends to be a lot cheaper.

  • Alcohol: Oxford alcohol prices can be extortionate. If you’re planning on going out, it is recommended to avoid buying drinks in clubs if you can, or at least limit yourself to the drinks deals (Bridge Thursdays usually have a Happy Hour until 11 in the connected Anuba bar, and if you’re LGBTQ+ Plush often has reduced drinks on specific nights). The pubs are often even more expensive so it’s worth keeping an eye on prices. College bars, however, can be much cheaper, as they are often heavily subsidised

  • Events: There are a few Oxford events that you may want to go to for the experience, such as Balls, but they often cost a lot of money. If you want to go to these events, it is often manageable if you start early in saving a few pounds a week from the beginning, just in case an event comes up that you really want to go to.

  • Pressure: Don’t feel like you need to match anyone else’s spending – and don’t feel embarrassed if you can’t! No one will notice if you don’t buy a pint while you’re out. If your friends aren’t willing to compromise on expensive social events, like going out for dinner, that’s their fault not yours.

  • Too Good To Go is an app where restaurants sell their leftovers as takeaways for reduced prices! 

University-wide support

Although a lot of financial support is college specific, the university does offer some bursaries and scholarships. You can find out which you might be eligible for with the university funding calculator here: www.ox.ac.uk/admissions/undergraduate/fees-and-funding/fees-funding-

and-scholarships/search. There’s a significant number of university scholarships available, for example, the Crankstart scholarship (formerly Moritz-Heyman), for lower-income households and people from areas with low progression to higher education.The largest bursary system offers between £200 to £3,700 for those in households with an income up to £42,875 per annum.

You don’t have to apply to these as they are awarded based on your Student Finance status; if you are eligible for a bursary, you should have been notified before the beginning of your course.

Some grants are also available from the UK government, which should be applied for through the relevant regional funding agency. For example, the Disabled Students’ Allowance and grants for people with other financial dependants.

In-College Support

The financial support given by colleges will vary, but every college should have a hardship fund that students can apply to. The best place to look for these is on the college website, or you can contact a member of staff from the Finance office or someone on your common room committees.

If you are struggling with accommodation or living costs, the best thing to do first is to seek help within college.

Colleges may also have grants for specific types of costs, which could include:

  • Book grants for undergraduate students towards the cost of degree-appropriate texts 

  • Travel and studying abroad (either as part of a year-abroad or to pursue specific interests)

  • Language learning

  • Music

  • College accommodation during vacations

  • Internships or work experience

Sudden Change in Circumstances

If your financial circumstances suddenly change, most colleges have a fund especially for sudden financial hardship which you can apply to (this is probably best located through your college’s Welfare Dean). You should also notify Student Finance as they can adjust your maintenance loan for the next term’s instalment. This goes for changes in household income, name changes, or if your parents have more children.

Welfare

There are a lot of welfare services available for Oxford students which are completely free and should be used if you need it or just want some extra support.

It is so important that you do not minimise what you are going through, which is especially common for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

If you are struggling, it does not mean you do not deserve your place in Oxford, but it may mean that you need a little bit extra support from the university - and this is what welfare support services are about.

Support in College:

Peer Support team – students who have had 30 hours training from the university counselling service. They both provide a confidential and impartial listening service, and are often the first port of call for welfare issues. If nothing else they’ll be able to signpost to the direction of other welfare services that might be of use. Keep an eye out for posters around your college!

JCR Welfare Officers – these students are elected into the JCR post for a year, and can similarly signpost you to other services. 

Welfare staff– most colleges have a nurse, and some have in-college counsellors and dedicated welfare officers. Their job is to help you, so remember that you’re free to approach them with any problem at all.

Dean team – varies by college, with some deans taking on a more disciplinary rather than welfare role. But deans, assistant deans, and junior deans will normally be happy to chat about welfare issues either formally or informally.

Tutors – If welfare issues are affecting your academic performance, don’t be afraid to approach your tutors. They’ll often be happy to help whether that be through extending deadlines or offering advice. Remember that all tutors have been students before, so they can be more sympathetic than you might expect.

Academic officer and senior tutor – This role may vary by college, but colleges normally have a member of staff who organises academic matters like exams, and can be contacted if your welfare is interfering with your work. They can also liaise with tutors if necessary.

Chaplains - many chaplains have a welfare role in college and you do not have to be religious to use them! They are great if you need extra support.

Wider services

  • Oxford University Counselling Service – You can request an appointment by emailing counselling@admin.ox.ac.uk, calling 01865 270300, or dropping in to the counselling service at 3 Worcester Street (opposite Worcester College and next to the Oxford SU offices). 
    More information here: https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/counselling/appointment?wssl=1#
    The counselling service is also contactable over the vacation if you require ongoing support at home and their website contains online resources such as podcasts.

  • The Student Advice Service – A free service run by Oxford SU offering advice on all aspects of Oxford life. 
    Their website has tonnes of information and details on how to contact them directly: https://oxfordsu.org/advice/student-advice-service/ 

  • Your GP – An easily-accessible service. Your GP may either diagnose and provide treatment for many welfare issues or recommend a service more applicable to your needs.

  • Peers of Colour and Rainbow Peers – University-wide Peer Support groups made up of BME and LGBTQ+ students respectively, if you would prefer to talk to someone who identifies with a given issue.

  • Charities – there are many charities around Oxford, dedicated to students and providing more general services. Some include:

    • Nightline which provides an anonymous listening service 8pm-8am 

    • Mind and Student Minds provide support and resources for mental health issues

    • Peer Supporters are trained to be able to point you in the direction of other services, but feel free to contact the Class Act Welfare Rep if you’d prefer.

You can find a comprehensive list of university services here:

www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare?wssl=1

SELF-CARE

  • Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Regardless of how small the issue feels, talking through your problems with someone else (be it a friend, peer supporter, or the senior welfare team) is an important first step.

  • Make time for yourself. Oxford is full of amazing spaces that your Bod card will get you in for free. If you need a break from an essay or problem sheet, take some time to wander around a museum, visit a different college, or explore the city’s parks and gardens.

  • Remember that deadlines aren’t the end of the world. Most tutors are happy to be flexible, if you’re struggling to manage your work.

  • Find a hobby or join a society. Setting aside a few hours to do something non-academic can help to structure your working week. (Class Act will be running several events that you can get involved with – keep an eye out for their term card!). 

  • Remember that everybody works at different rates, especially in first year. Try not to compare yourself too heavily with your classmates and focus on finding a routine that works for you!

Who to Contact

List of contacts for various reasons - the class act campaign (and what they can offer), as well as social backgrounds/access reps are also likely to have the right contacts if you have any issues, and are very open to having a chat.

  • Access Reps, or Class/Social Background Reps, are in every JCR, and are always happy to discuss with you and vent any problems you are struggling with. They are also likely to have the right contacts and know where you should go, even if they can’t help you directly.

  • Welfare Reps are always a good point of call for any issues you may have as they are so nice and they often know how to support you best.

  • Class Act Campaign is an amazing resource from the SU. If you are struggling in Oxford as a result of your socioeconomic background, the likelihood is the class act campaign can help you out. They run events and have facebook groups you can join, all to help you find people from similar backgrounds.

    • Class Act also has a family scheme, which acts exactly like a college family but made up of those from similar backgrounds who've specifically signed up to help. It's open to those who identify with at least one of the following: state comprehensive educated, first gen, working class, low income, care leavers & estranged students. To sign up to be part of the scheme, fill in this form: https://forms.gle/U2r9oGVtQwVDjtbe7

  • Going to cultural/regional societies can help you find people sometimes from a similar background, such as going to Northerners society or ACS. While these societies are not solely for disadvantaged backgrounds, quite often the less represented communities that have these societies are more likely to come from a similar background as yourself.

  • First-Gen society is also great if this applies to you!

  • Tutors are important to talk to if you are struggling with anything as a result of your background as they can give you practical solutions and help you with the academic side of things. You will be surprised with how understanding they can be.

  • Older years (especially those in your subject) can give you lots of good advice as they have already been through what you are going through. College families can be really good for this.

Care Leavers and Estranged Students Resources

While every student’s experience is unique, we recognise that students who are care leavers, or are estranged, may face a number of additional difficulties while studying at Oxford. This may be practical concerns such as arranging financial support through the Student Finance system, to the emotional toll of public holidays and student celebrations with strained or absent key familial relationships.

Here are some resources that might be particularly useful:

  • The University page on support for care leavers: www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/careleavers?wssl=1

  • Stand Alone (charity for those estranged from parents or children): www.standalone.org.uk/

  • Rees The Care Leavers Foundation: www.reesfoundation.org/

  • Your common room: Much of Oxford’s non-academic support takes place here. In particular, if your college is not running events over public holidays, these groups may be able to liaise with other colleges that are.

  • The Oxford Students’ Disability Community (see more information in the ‘Disability’ section) may be able to signpost out-of-term resources for mental health.

  • For further support, check out the ‘Welfare’ section – it is particularly recommended looking at Oxford SU’s Student Advice, the University Student Welfare and Support Services (which includes the Counselling Service) and Oxford Nightline.

The SU Class Act Campaign is also a campaign for estranged students and care leavers. If you want to find more people in similar circumstances as you, the Campaign would be a good starting point. Give them an email and they should be able to connect you to others.

Carers

Students who have people at home who are physically, emotionally or financially dependent on them face a whole other set of worries.

  • It helps to be completely honest and firm with tutors, as it helps them understand and be more flexible to what you need in your personal situation.

  • It also helps to speak to others with similar experiences as the more people you find who understand, the easier it may get. The Oxford Take Care group is a great thing to get involved in to do this. Its facebook page is here (where it lists all the events you can get involved with): https://www.facebook.com/takecareox

  • Do not be afraid to ask for extra support, because most likely you will need it. Make the most of the welfare (which was listed before!)

  • Being a carer at university is not easy, and it is so normal to feel any emotions you have moving away from home, getting a new sense of freedom but maybe feeling guilty by not being with the people at home. It is okay to feel this, and it is important to know that you are not alone. The best thing to do is talk about it.