The conclusion of the Robbins Report commissioned by the British Government in 1963 – statement also known as the Robbins Principle – says that “Courses of HE should be available to all who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so”. More than half a century passed from that report, but many groups of people still face barriers to access and participation in higher education – and they often don’t belong to minorities.
The numbers differ from institution to institution and each group faces different obstacles. The outcome is that many groups are underrepresented and many individuals are not given a chance to get a place at prestigious universities, despite their excellent academic record. Perhaps unsurprisingly, underrepresentation and inequalities are more apparent in Britain’s most renowned universities, Cambridge and Oxford. If we look at the statistics, we see that 82% of the Oxbridge student body comes from the top two social groups, whereas only 6% of offers are made to applicants from the bottom two groups. Moreover, Oxbridge admits twice as many students from Eton as it does students eligible for free school meals.
Inequalities are not only linked to income and socio-economic conditions, but also to geographic and ethnic origins. In this case numbers look even darker: according to Oxbridge admission data each year, one in four Oxbridge colleges fails to make a single offer to a black British student and the same colleges make more offers to applicants from four Home Counties than the whole of Northern England (half of the entire student body at Oxbridge comes from London and the South East of England). And this isn’t the end. The Office for Fair Access includes in the list of underrepresented groups in HE people with disabilities, mental health problems, specific learning difficulties, mature students, carers and refugees. Just to mention some.
The price of these inequalities is quite high, both for individuals who experience limited access to Oxbridge and for society. In a world where financial benefits deriving from education are continuously rising, it has been calculated that an Oxbridge graduate is expected to earn around £400,000 (yes, almost half a million) in their lifetime more than any other graduates from all other British universities. The price for society and for the Oxbridge academic environment is the heavy loss of talent, along with the loss of potential financial benefits for the institutions.
There are four main barriers to access HE. These are low aspirations/confidence, low attainment, lack of information and – perhaps most crucially – lack of support within institutions. Although both Oxford and Cambridge are working towards being inclusive and diverse in their intake – and some colleges are individually seeking to increase the percentage of students from state-schools and disadvantaged areas – these efforts are sometimes not enough. “Disadvantaged students need solutions now; not just diagnoses”, says Joe Seddon, the founder of Access Oxbridge, a new- born non-profit start-up whose aim is to make Oxbridge accessible to all. He comes from one of the areas with the lowest rates of university take-up in the whole country and last July graduated in PPE from Oxford.
Access Oxbridge connects disadvantaged students with mentors from Oxford and Cambridge. The service, completely free, utilises online communication technology such that Oxbridge mentors can deliver live video tutorials ranging from personal statement advice, admissions test guidance, and realistic Oxbridge-style mock interviews. All students who attend non-fee paying schools and come from low socio-economic backgrounds or areas with low university take-up automatically qualify.
Joe’s project is driven by his personal experience as a “disadvantaged student” and as a tutor. He remembers the lack of confidence he had about his chances to get a place at Oxford University and how great an impact this mentality had on the application process. Also, as an undergraduate, having to financially support his studies after cuts to government grants, Joe worked as a tutor for international students. In his strive to conceive a way to employ Oxbridge students’ tutoring skills in helping applicants from disadvantaged areas and give them a practical answer, he founded Access Oxbridge. The mission is to change that mentality characterized by lack of confidence and self-motivation and to provide students with those essential soft skills necessary to submit a successful application and get through an interview.
So far, Access Oxbridge has more than 300 Oxbridge mentors, of which over 100 signed up within the first 24 hours of launching, purely through organic social media growth and word-of-mouth. The target is to recruit over 500 mentors before the end of October, and Joe hopes to have connected over 200 students by the same time. The support for the project is certainly already there. Nobel prize winner Malala Yousafzai enthusiastically praised the initiative with her declaration “This is amazing!!!” and Evie Aspinall, CUSU President and supporter has said that “this sounds like a really great project”.