Earlier this week Oxford University announced its biggest commitment to helping students from under privileged backgrounds to succeed at the University, to date.
The two new programmes — Opportunity Oxford and Foundation Oxford — aim to increase significantly the number of most promising students from groups who are currently under-represented in Oxford. Opportunity Oxford is aimed at students from more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. Foundation Oxford a one-year, fully funded course, which follows the success of Lady Margaret Hall’s Foundation Year, and will be open to students who have personally experienced severe disadvantage or educational disruption.
The combined impact of these ambitious programmes represents a major progression for the University, with one Oxford undergraduate in four set to be from the UK’s most under-represented backgrounds by 2023.
Here current students share their views on the news, the University’s approach to access and inclusion, and the changing face of Oxford in general.
‘I was so convinced that Oxford would never want someone like me that I thought my applying to Oxford might be a waste of a place. But my Dad turned around and said ‘you need to put your name into the hat to be considered’. I’ve not looked back.
Coming from a state school that was Ofsted-categorised as a ‘Special Measures’ school, it was important to me to apply to a college that had an access initiative as innovative as Univ’s Opportunity Programme. It has had a massively positive influence on my life, and I am really happy and encouraged to see the University extending these opportunities to more students like me.
The bridging residential option influenced me significantly in picking my college. The time spent on the course was valuable in many ways: socially, academically, but most of all, as an acclimatisation period. I familiarised myself with my college environment, the city, and the ins and outs of Oxford’s particularities. The experience meant that, when October came, I was freshly aware of my capability and hit the ground running.’
Ruqayah Juyel, studying Law at University College, Opportunity Programme alumni
‘This is a major step forward in improving access to Oxford. Students are excited to see the University commit to these new initiatives, and it is a reflection on student efforts to bring this to the forefront of the University agenda. Oxford SU has long held access at the heart of our work, so this is excellent news for Oxford students.’
Joe Inwood, President of Oxford Student Union
‘It’s fantastic that the hard work towards access from students and staff has paid off. For Oxford to have finally started to recognise that they can play a part in addressing the educational disadvantage that so many talented students face is a major step forward.’
Amelia Bircham, a first-year History and Politics student at Keeble College
‘Studying at the University of Oxford is a tremendous privilege and joy; we need to ensure that everyone regardless of their background has the chance to experience this. Some of the students I admire the most have taken part in access schemes like UNIQ.
‘These programmes will hopefully not only increase the intake of students from under-represented backgrounds, but most importantly also contribute to motivating such individuals to apply in the first place. These programmes set out clear paths for students that want to go to Oxford but feel like this experience might be daunting due to their personal disadvantage or disrupted education. Presenting a university-wide united front of recognising access as an important issue is a major step.
‘I am very excited about Trinity College taking a leading role in widening access and reaching out to applicants of a wide range of backgrounds. Around 1 in 4 Trinity JCR members are part of the college’s ambassador program that was only started this academic year and is attended by students from a range of backgrounds. I think there can be a notable social divide based on shared cultural experiences, but this does not pose a problem to friendships growing across college.
Oxford is a great place to live, but there is still work to do; Trinity JCR is delighted by seeing the university take action and look forward to seeing how we can take a leading role in this change.’
Jonas Sandbrink, President of Trinity College JCR, 2nd year Medicine
“As a student who knows first-hand the benefits of access initiatives such as the Univ bridging programme, I could not be happier to see the University taking the necessary steps to ensure that more prospective students of the future are extended the same life-changing opportunity. It is a turning point for this institution — a recognition that, while unfortunately students up and down the country are not afforded a level playing field, as an institution we are capable of generating initiatives that help to combat that. It is a significant step towards ensuring that those who are capable, and have had to endure unique circumstance and hardship through no fault of their own, are afforded the opportunity to succeed as much as anyone else.”
Ffion Price, second year studying History and Politics at University College
‘I’m proud to be part of Pembroke, a college which has been committed to encouraging disadvantaged students to apply to higher education, not just Oxford, for more than a decade with their involvement with the Oxnet Programme and more. I’m looking forward to seeing how the University’s two new access programmes will develop and expand in the next few years, and hopefully see Pembroke taking on the programmes in the future when they have been fully developed. It’s really great to see the University’s increasing commitment to improving access, along with the expansion of UNIQ over the years.’
Qianhui Yang, (BA Economics and Management, 2017), JCR Access Rep, Pembroke College
‘As a working class, low income, and first generation student, I’m really thrilled to see the work that the university is putting into making itself more accessible to those from a variety of backgrounds. I don’t think I’d be here myself if it wasn’t for outreach work done by Oxford in the past, with schemes such as UNIQ and Pathways giving me the confidence to apply here despite a lack of progression in my area. To see further improvements being announced shows that steps really are being made in the right direction, not only to help people to get here but to also ease to process of settling in for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, which was something I particularly struggled with in my first year. I wish I would have had access to the Bridging week when I applied, as I feel that it would have made a great difference to adapting to a life in Oxford.
‘My role as access officer at Mansfield College has also helped me to see that these schemes have a real impact on potential students, making them feel not only that they have a chance of coming here but also that they are wanted and would belong here. There is still a long way to go to fix the current disparities here, but I’m excited and hopeful to see what progress can be made going forward.’
Codie Wood, Second Year Maths Student at Mansfield College, and JCR Access Officer
‘I hope that from taking this significant step for change, Oxford University will be enriched both socially and academically with a new lease of life brought about by new applicants from every demographic of the UK. It is a simple marker of equality that every person of every background should be given the opportunity to come and study — whether they choose it as their preferred path or not.
‘From my experience coming from the North-East, Oxford has been incredibly inclusive towards me, and I have never found myself feeling down about my heritage or where I come from. For diversity, the issue often comes in the lack of application of students from different backgrounds — who feel they are not the ‘stereotype’ and thus are not wanted. Though there can be people who are different to you, and who you may have never ever talked to at a different stage of your life, Oxford is a mature place where all people from all backgrounds can talk as equals. If you’ve grown up at a state school in Sunderland, as I did, then you won’t understand the facets of going to an all-girls independent boarding school. I didn’t understand that, but I was and still am, open to understanding more about others’ lives.
I think my message is, Oxford is inclusive, as long as you open yourself up to allow it to be inclusive, and trust that other people will do the same. In my mind, being from an access background or a privileged background should not matter — you have earned your spot at Oxford, regardless of whether your help to get here was from your parents and independent school, or from one caring state school teacher and the central university team.
‘I believe that the commitment to access is an excellent start, but is something that needs to be pushed still at a collegiate level — something I look forward to doing from a student perspective at Trinity.’
Bradley Logan, a second year studying History at Trinity
‘I am very pleased to hear that the University will be introducing Foundation Oxford. As a beneficiary of the LMH Foundation Year, I am heartened to know many more students will benefit from an Oxford education. As a young woman from Newham, Oxford seemed a distant dream, but since arriving in September 2017, I can’t imagine being anywhere else. The Foundation Year has changed my life and today’s announcement means many more lives will be transformed in the future.’
Cherelle Malongo, a first-year Classical Archaeology and Ancient History student at Lady Margaret Hall
‘I’m really excited about Oxford’s new programme, not because it will help Oxford to fill a quota or improve its image, but because this is a genuine chance for Oxford to make sure that they don’t lose students with great potential simply because they haven’t had the opportunities that others have.
‘I wouldn’t say that Oxford is inclusive yet — we have so many more things that we need to work on, but this is a great step, and really shows that the University and Colleges are dedicated to taking active steps towards ensuring that inclusivity. Oxford is often seen as always wanting to stick to traditions and this is a serious impediment in access work, but the level of dedication to access that I’ve seen in my own college, other colleges, and in the University as a whole suggests to me that this perception isn’t a reflection on reality, and the misunderstanding of Oxford as somewhere for better-off people probably contributes significantly to gaps that exist, because people just don’t feel able to apply, or feel that they would be excluded or feel out-of-place, but this isn’t true.
‘I must admit that I thought that there would be wide divides between students from different socio-economic background, but I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived — once you get here, it really doesn’t matter as much as you’d think. Of course, as more and more of the Oxford student body is comprised of people from less advantaged background, I think the divide will become even less obvious.
‘I think that access is essential, because there are so many young people in the UK who have so much potential to flourish at Oxford, and without access work and programmes like this, they are often left to fall through the cracks — it’s a loss for both the student themselves and for the University.’
Holly Winch, studying Classics IIB at Trinity College
‘I’m so delighted to see such centralised commitment from the university to widen participation from underrepresented groups. This really feels like a big step in the right direction to diversify and therefore improve our student population at Oxford’’
Shona Galt, a second year studying English and Italian at Keeble, and JCR Access and Academic Affairs Officer
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Want to read more? Try our articles on: UNIQ voices — Perspectives from past UNIQ Summer School students, Coming to Oxford from a state school and How to shine in an Oxford interview.
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