In this series, I will be investigating current access and inclusion policy at Oxbridge universities, in an attempt to uncover the realities of the lived experience of students from ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ – from primary school to further education and into real-world careers. What follows in an article from this series, with Joe Seddon, founder and CEO of Access Oxbridge, as part of “‘Access All Areas’: Investigating Access and Inclusion at Oxbridge and Beyond”.
I spoke with Joe over FaceTime, to discuss the work of the organisation he founded – “Access Oxbridge” – which is trying to put long-term support in place for students aspiring to become Oxbridge undergraduates. “Access Oxbridge is a peer-to-peer platform which directly connects Oxbridge students, current students at Oxford and Cambridge, with students from disadvantaged backgrounds”, says Joe, “and the principle behind the platform is to make connecting those students as accessible as possible, because I think one of the issues that a lot of access schemes have had in the past is that they’ve been very bureaucratic; a lack of organisation, a lack of creativity about how to get the right people together. So I thought I would overcome that problem by using the technology which both university students and high school students are using. This way it’s available to both the private and state sector as well.”
Joe himself went to Oxford University, and graduated from Mansfield College in July of last year with a First in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). Before that, he attended Heckmondwike Grammar School in Yorkshire – and whilst he recognises he had a fairly privileged education, he also saw around him a problem that he wanted to help with.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a disadvantaged student but I come from an area where very few people progress to higher education, and even I, when I turned up to Oxford for the first time, felt like I was in a completely alien environment. I remember in my interviews feeling very nervous and out of place – very strong sense of imposter syndrome.” Having turned the clock back as far as his interview, I was interested to see what had motivated Joe even before this stage – what made him want to apply in the first place.
“I wasn’t someone who always wanted to go to Oxbridge – I just sort of fell into it, I only really began to think about it once I got my GCSEs. But like a lot of people with backgrounds like mine, I was inspired by a particular teacher who encouraged me to apply. Just having that one role model in school to hold your hand through the process and give you moral support goes a really long way. Unfortunately not everyone has access to an inspiring teacher like that, which is why we connect people one-on-one with mentors instead.”
One of my interests in this series is examining the literal, career-market and social value of an Oxbridge degree – as an Oxford graduate, Joe clearly appreciated the benefits and virtues of a qualification which carries so much weight in this overlapping spheres.
“In terms of the value [of an Oxbridge degree], I think what’s great about Oxbridge is the soft, transferable skills it gives you – yes, you get to study a great degree and learn lots about a particular subject and listen to the experts in that field, but what you also really gain is really strong critical thinking, problem solving skills and resilience. Writing two or three thousand words a week if you’re a humanities student or solve multiple problems for science students builds a lot of resilience and the ability to work under pressure and think quickly – those are the skills which really carry you forward in later life and I think when you graduate and see other people from Oxbridge, you can tell [that’s where they went] because the students who’ve been through a similar process to you can also attest to the fact it’s helped them in their career. I would really encourage anyone who really cares about a particular subject to apply to Oxbridge purely for that reason, I think [they’re] great universities and the tutorial system is unparalleled. At the same time, I also think these people have a little bit of humility: Oxbridge isn’t for everyone and there’s no point telling everyone that they can apply. There needs to be a sense of realism, but one of the main problems is that the university doesn’t know how to communicate that and a lot of the time their realism should be tempered by a little bit more of a contextual understanding of how things work.”
When I specifically brought up the idea of access policy, in its purest form, Joe laid out his binary view on the issue itself. The way he sees it, access is a two-part question: “the information/motivation component, and the resources component.” Overcoming “imposter syndrome”, “making sure people have a correct perception or image of what Oxbridge is really like, and giving them the motivation to apply – due to a number of factors, people have a very distorted picture of what Oxbridge is like; people tend to think it’s very closed, overly traditional, very white, very upper class and posh; and whilst that’s true to an extent, a lot of people tend to have a slightly distorted image. Giving people a mentor who they can relate to, someone from a similar background to them, can go a really long way because it shows that people who look like them, who speak like them, who’ve gone to similar schools, can actually go to Oxbridge and they can join them and feel like they fit in.” Conceptually this seemed sound, but as with many issues of this kind there is a practical cost that often makes any solution inaccessible. Joe sees his tech-based scheme as a possible way to combat what he called “the issue of resources”: “people who go to schools which don’t really have an experience of getting people into Oxbridge, who don’t have a large network of former students who’ve been there – they don’t really know how the system works, they don’t the right way to structure personal statements or the right tone to use, they don’t know what advice to give in terms of admissions tests and the worst part of that is the interviews. There are a lot of myths floating around about how one should comport themselves, the kind of things you should say, the kind of questions you’ll get asked, so just having a mentor who can give a first-hand perspective of how it went for them and pass on the best advice they got, and the worst advice, can go a long way. The bit I like to put emphasis on is giving people an experience of tutorials/supervisions – having the chance to articulate yourself in an academic discussion just for an hour a week can really help, not only with your confidence but also you learn over time what works and what doesn’t when structuring your argument, how you respond to difficult questions – that’s a really important skill. A lot of things I’ve heard from interviews with people whose schools didn’t prepare them well, is that they get asked a difficult question and they freeze. Having exposure to that beforehand can go a really long way.”
In a moment of more reflective discussion, we reached the conclusion that there is an element of ‘passing the buck’ between the sectors of society who contribute to the access issue. In Joe’s words, “there’s no easy way to solve these sorts of issues – a lot of these issues have been entrenched in an education system which has failed a lot earlier than the Oxbridge admissions stage. But that doesn’t mean that the people in charge at universities can abdicate responsibility for making things better and its one of the things that really disappointed me; a lot of people go to universities like Oxford, put their hands up and say “it’s not our fault, it’s a problem of resources and a state education system that doesn’t properly prepare students”, which is true but you have some responsibility to ameliorate those problems and put systems in place that allow you to identify students from backgrounds who haven’t been prepared for interviews, and I think the universities have a very, very long way to go.” In other words, he agrees, the problems that exist pre- and post-Oxbridge are not mutually exclusive.
We talked extensively about his work in creating an independent access scheme, and Joe shared some of his views about the organisations he co-exists with.
“I think a lot of the existing access schemes out there, whilst they’re very well principled and have great ideas, they’ve suffered from too much bureaucracy, a lack of organisation, and a lack of tech. I wanted to overcome these problems by creating a digital platform that’s really easy to engage with and really easy to use and administer. In terms of exactly how it operates, people sign up using our website: we’re completely social media based. Once you’re verified, you are algorithmically matched – mentors and mentees are automatically brought together. We tend to match people based on things like, university, subject, shared background and education if at all possible. From that point we give our mentors advice about how to administer the programme but we also give a degree of autonomy as well. It tends to be based on weekly, one-on-one video tutorials…I think it’s a really engaging way to do this, you can develop a good relationship with your mentor. And that’s supposed to take students through the entire admissions process – starting off with basic information about how Oxbridge works, writing personal statements…then it gets a bit more in depth, how to prepare for an admissions test, and then some interview-style tutorials. They’re not supposed to be ‘mock interviews’, per se, but more about giving people an introduction to the whole tutorial/supervision system, because one of the things that people in the state sector are never really exposed to is the opportunity for a one-on-one academic or intellectual conversation because unfortunately the resources just aren’t there at a lot of the schools around the country. I think allowing students to have a little bit of exposure to that, and how it works, is really useful. We’ve had people reporting back to us that they’ve felt far more confident after having only 5 one-hour sessions. I think just a little bit of help can go a long way.”
Joe’s voice couldn’t help a hint of pride as he mentioned their non-unimpressive statistical impact just in the last year. “It’s been really successful so far, we’ve had over 500 mentors sign up, and over 200 students on the programme this year. Although we only launched back in September, so we’ve only had a limited amount of time, we’ve had a lot of success – I think 50 of our students have gained offers at Oxbridge which given the background of our students is really good – far above what you’d expect for university averages. It just shows that putting a little thought and creativity behind each thing can go a really long way and I really hope I can expand the programme in the future to help more people.”
He also nodded to the root of the scheme – something that he feels quite strongly is a method of reaching students that universities are simply not engaging with enough. “Our growth has been almost completely organic, from people sharing our videos and our content on social media, for example our video on Facebook has 200,000 views and we’ve been endorsed by a number of celebrities on Twitter…I think the universities need to start using social media more, because within access schemes at the universities [themselves] there is a real dearth of ideas. They think that school tours and leaflets and ‘overnight schools’ can solve all their problems, and whilst those things can be really beneficial I think the universities have really missed a trick with properly engaging on social media. More content to help people to see how the university works, more students from non-conventional backgrounds on social media [creating content] really works and one of the things I am really interested in is collaborating with people who are creating this content unofficially, like Miss Varz at Oxford or Tilly Rose, ‘That Oxford Girl’ – more engagement from the university with those sort of people would be great. The university are very reluctant to work with anyone who aren’t directly working for them, with students who are doing things by themselves. I think the universities in many ways need to get over themselves, accept that they can’t control the entire process and help those that are doing things on their own.”
That key idea of ‘control’ cropped up several times in the interview, and I queried Joe’s thesis that Oxbridge universities feel that part of the problem is one of image, not of substance. His reply was emphatic: “I think it’s an issue of control – both universities are very conscious about their image which I think is one of the many problems of access. I think both universities, but especially Oxford, regard access as a marketing/PR issue, rather than an educational issue. They really want to have full control over the way their image is projected and working with people in an unofficial capacity means that they lose a little bit of that autonomy. I just think the universities need to start getting their priorities right in that regard, because there is no excuse for letting people from disadvantaged backgrounds down simply for more control over your image. This should be top priority for the universities – I would stress to people in admissions departments: start taking people who either work for autonomous organisations or do things themselves seriously and start engaging with them.”
I asked him what he sees as the proverbial next steps: having so articulately identified the problems, what are some immediate solutions? “I think straight away things that universities could do include contextual admissions – so one of the arguments often promulgated by universities is that they don’t want to lower or weaken standards, there’s a real sense that contextual admissions is akin to [doing that]. When you look at the key indicators of success at Oxbridge in terms of people who get Firsts in final year, there’s a huge correlation between people who’ve come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and who might have benefited from contextual admission, and getting high grades. So I think expanding contextual admissions system so it applies not only to students from the poorest backgrounds but also to have it in a broader sense.”
If you’re interested in becoming an Access Oxbridge mentor, check out Access Oxbridge here!
Keep an eye out for the next instalment in the ‘AAA’ series!