Shadab Ahmed: ‘Access All Areas’

Molly Bolding 16 February 2019
Image Credit: Joe Robinson, Varsity

Shadab Ahmed is the Access and Funding Officer for the Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU), who studied Natural Sciences (Chemistry) at Christ’s before going on to become “the only full-time sabbatical officer role in the country that focuses on just access and widening participation”, in his own words.

Image Credit: CUSU

I sat down with Shadab in the offices at CUSU, to try and get a better idea of his view of his job at the Student Union and as part of the university as a whole. Once we got talking, it became apparent that a lot of issues come under the umbrella of ‘Access and Funding’, but rather than being overwhelmed he seemed optimistic. “I see my job as encouraging students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds, whether that’s Free School Meals or ethnicity, in a broader sense not only to apply to Cambridge but to higher education in general I think is the aim.” Given the expansive nature of his role, the need for a cross-strategy approach to the problems became apparent: “I think its important to have [a] broader picture of [the issue], from dealing with lobbying the government on issues, down to giving talks to schools.”

When we began to talk about the issues that students face in education as a whole, Shadab immediately identified something that had been a repeated factor across much of my research: “The fact that the gaps, attainment or otherwise, start right from nursery – whether it’s due to the household environment, or the teaching facilities – there is a huge disparity in the way education exists in the UK. Social stratification exists in the educational system from the get-go, and the way our schooling systems works just accentuates the gap further and further at every stage I think. At university the gap widens even further, and even those who can make it into higher education at highly selective institutions are disadvantaged. You can see the attainment gaps are still there – whether it’s a gender gap in some subjects, or a black attainment gap. So even if they overcome all those barriers and find themselves in higher education, they still struggle compared to their counterparts. Those reasons might be structural, in terms of the support they might get, or the fact that they’re disproportionately likely to have to work while studying to support themselves – all these different factors come into play: whether it’s course content, the way they’re assessed, whether the questions are phrased in a way that gives some advantages over others. There’s a whole array of things that are national or government policy, from school level to university, that does this.”

One of the key ideas that has come out of this interview series is the idea of the worth of an Oxbridge degree, and what drives us as a society to value them so highly. I sensed a frustration on Shadab’s part while discussing this, and he was adamant that this was in fact one of the key issues when dealing with pre-university access initiatives.

“I think I disagree with having such a set precedent on Oxbridge being the target, and I hate people ‘raising aspirations’ to apply to Oxbridge – it’s not the be-all and end-all, and I think we just rely far too much on our own reputation. I think the drive to apply to Oxbridge is the fact that the teaching is so personalised, and that I think is the big takeaway for me – I couldn’t focus in lectures, so if I didn’t have the supervision system where I had to do things throughout then that would have been awful for me, if I had gone somewhere else I wouldn’t have received any of that personalised teaching. When I’m doing outreach events, I always encourage people not to apply to Cambridge for the sake of it – look at the course, the modes of assessment, stuff like that. There’s no point in applying here if you know you just really want to write dissertations and just do essays and coursework, because we’re exam-heavy. It’s the prestige thing, the international reputation – we’ve relied on that, and now people think it’s the ultimate goal without any actual nuance as to why you would want to study at a specifc university. There are other universities that are better for different things – or not even universities, going into other further education or apprenticeships or anything else. It’s important to recognise the merits of each [option].”

We went on to discuss the responsibilities of universities in local communities more widely, and Shadab was keen to demonstrate his vision of Oxbridge universities working towards becoming more “accountable and transparent institution[s], open to developing society as a whole”. “It depends on what we envisage the role of the university to be – whether that’s just to educate from 18 years onwards, or whether we should be entrenched in local communities and helping teach and broaden people’s horizons from a young age. I personally think the latter: we should be working with local businesses, local schools to try to equip them with different skills – because they are just different skills. Nothing is beyond the remit of university, but in a realistic world I guess we should be aiming to bridge the gap between age 16-18, when they’re making decisions – we should be working younger too – but actually having tangible benefits there so if there are educational deficits, through no fault of the student, if their schools are underfunded or their teachers are overworked or badly paid, then I think universities should try to bridge the gap,” he pointed out, “especially in the case of Oxbridge – we have these interviews and admissions assessments which other universities don’t have, so the onus should be on us to help those students who can’t receive [support] for these. But again, on a national level, if the government is not funding schools and not funding universities, or if they’re going to cut tuition fees so they can’t fund themselves, let alone try to do more, then there’s a problem with resources. There’s nothing more that can be done if there’s no money to do it.”

Much of Shadab’s perspective on the role of Access and Funding Officer is enlightened by his personal experience: “even sitting on the committees in the University I am, most of the time, the only person of colour in the room and I just find that sometimes you say something that they will never think of, because they’ve not been in a position where they’ve had to think of things like that. So I think when you diversify the population, you’ll come across so many different points of view that you’ll never have thought of so I think it improves the education of everyone – it doesn’t just benefit those who couldn’t get in who now can, who can now access further education, it benefits those who are already here, because you get an introduction to a new train of thought.”

We talked about his plans to tackle the ‘war of attrition’ that everyday life at Oxbridge can present to students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds, and Shadab made clear an important distinction within the issue.

“At Cambridge specifically, it depends on the part of the ‘underrepresented and disadvantaged’ you are from. Being BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) you don’t see many people who look like you, which can play on your mind – especially if you come from London, where 25% of our intake is from, which is a lot more diverse. The lack of cultural confidence at times, the throwaway remarks, the [microaggressions], the little things – but it also does go up to a bigger level; not being able to fully access counselling services or the nurses, if they don’t completely understand the issues then you have to explain lots about your culture before you can even start to get help, it’s a barrier. That’s one part of it. Here, class is quite a big thing – it’s the little everyday things that add up, when you have conversations about going skiing or the holidays you’ve been on. That’s not something you can magic away with money – bursaries are great, but there needs to be a culture change I guess. Everyone benefits from a diverse [environment] – in reality, when you go into a supervision or a seminar you get a very narrow set of views if your intake is narrow.”

I wondered how he felt about his work, and was curious whether he felt he had made any strides in pushing for that aforementioned ‘culture change’. Shadab was enthusiastic about the move towards tailored access projects, rather than generic ones.

“One of my main focuses and aims for this year was to make sure that any outreach or access work is targeted, not a broad-stroke initiative; so don’t just host a BME Open Day, instead be more specialised. For example, I’m working on an outreach thing for Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Arab students specifically because they face similar issues that, for example, people on Free School Meals won’t face. They both have issues, they are both underrepresented [groups], but you need to tackle them in different ways. I think you have to really find the problem – is it moving away from home, is it the lack of representation, or is it curricular, and working to tackle those. Some of those cost money, some of them don’t – if it’s curriculum change you need diversity in the workforce, you need diversity in your academics. I guess that’s another theme – if you have pay gaps between academics then that drives out BME staff, female staff, women in STEM, wherever else. That propagates down, it’s a leaky pipeline and you never allow for undergraduates to become postgraduates to become academics because it doesn’t trickle down. So you need to evaluate the problems, and how the solution actually addresses it – I think we spend a lot of money on things that we just assume work, but don’t, and then we need to find out what works and how you can implement that for the different groups you need to tackle. Funding is one thing, with OFS moving the minimum spending, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Finally I proffered a more serious question – what are the consequences for society more generally if we don’t seriously start to deal with access to these prestigious institutions?

“I can’t remember the stats but the vast majority of people in Parliament went to Oxbridge anyway, so if we can’t solve our diversity problem then it leaks into society at the very highest levels. So if the people making the policy and making decisions are from the same group of people, then it only serves to benefit them or they only have a very narrow view of society. Even in other areas: charity work, fashion, acting; all those sort of areas are ones which would benefit from cultural capital from being brought up in a certain environment but also you have the financial advantage of being prepared for things or, you know – nepotism is a thing – so you know the people to get into them. That’s just a widespread problem and you see that when people don’t see anyone like them in a certain position or know anyone from university then they don’t feel like they can [be involved with those things] unless a peer who’s similar to them tells its possible. But that’s not just university – that’s across all careers, whether it be politics, or law…it’s that lack of representation and lack of visibility.”

Image Credit: CUSU

Feel free to contact Shadab about his role at CUSU at access@cusu.cam.ac.uk, and check out the CUSU Access campaign here!