So, there has been a lot of press around Oxford today. Are the stats unacceptable? Absolutely. Does there need to be a concerted effort to change? Yes, it’s happening, but it needs to keep improving and go even further than it currently does.
Personally, Oxford had never crossed my mind growing up. I knew about local universities: that was the future I saw for myself, as long as I worked hard and got my grades. An offhand question from an English teacher offered something a little different: “had I thought about university?” - that changed everything. When she suggested Oxford as a place to consider, I laughed. How could I go there? My family were even more apprehensive. Oxford wasn’t a place for us. Why would I move 400 miles away to a place that was full of gown-wearing southerners, with a severe lack of Irn-Bru, and where I might not fit in?
Thankfully, I did apply. I was encouraged by some wonderful people, and have been incredibly privileged to study Law in Oxford. I had experiences that 16 year old me would never have even dreamt of. But it shouldn’t have to come down to that one chance interaction.
That is why and how I have come to this role. I am the VP Access and Academic Affairs and spend my days trying to make sure Oxford is accessible to everyone challenging stereotypes. Every time I went home, I also tried to challenge the stereotypes.
No, I didn’t forget where I came from.
No, I don’t now think I’m better than everyone else.
Yes, actually, I am loving it.
I was trying to get people to take the same journey because that is the only way we change things. I love meeting young people and trying to change their perceptions of this town and university. Access and outreach is just one way of reaching the people who would never have otherwise considered Oxford. But access is more than an offer letter and starts before the application process and is still an issue post graduation.
Is it weird and old sometimes? Of course.
But, are there people who want to push to make things better? Yes.
Our fantastic students campaign and volunteer alongside their degrees to try and change this place. Whether it is campaigning for structural reform or supporting those students who are underrepresented when they get here, students want to keep making a difference and improving this university from the inside (Join them!) We have students who volunteer to run workshops with students both here and on roadshows in schools where students would be unlikely to consider Oxford. We contribute to online resources be that blogs, vlogs, or university online learning. However the structural challenges to access cannot be solved by student action alone, it needs bold actions from the university, schools and government policy to make Oxford truly accessible.
Realistically, how we are going to change things here? Let’s start by taking up more space. We need more people to fill in those applications and give it a go and challenge those stereotypes. Don’t let all the talk of how hard it is to get in or that there aren’t many students like you here put you off applying. Students are always trying to improve this institution, so become that voice, hold this university to account and reduce the barriers for the next generation.
My final thought is this. Don’t listen to the people bringing you down. Have faith in yourself and keep aiming high. Because that is the only way we have the potential to make things better.
Catherine Canning is Oxford SU’s Vice President Access and Academic Affairs @OxfordSU_AccAff