The Union may seem an odd place to host a sincere discussion on access, but last week it played host to one of the more unlikely scenes in the chamber: a joint Access Forum. If you’ve ever been back to your old school to speak to Sixth-Formers or attended a meeting in your college then you’ll know how access is and how many challenges the Oxford faces.
Contrary to The Daily Mail’s view of Oxford students, hundreds of people across the university are involved in many different ways. Target Schools have long trained students to go into schools across the country and combat some of the myths about university life, as well as encouraging and assisting applications. Common Rooms, through their committees and Access Reps try to work with college groups and run their own access and outreach schemes. Even the Union has gotten in on the act, whether through discounted membership to those on bursaries, Womens Initiatives or debating workshops with local schools. All this is in addition to the work that OUSU and the University do centrally.
A huge first step towards tackling the increasing access challenges we face is co-ordinating the work of these different communities. While the University prepare to meet the financial obligations charging the highest level of fees demands, there are Target Schools volunteers paying for their own CRB checks. Different organisations are putting together separate literature and hosting individual training sessions, when these resources could be combined. We also need to talk to each other a bit more; Harriet Green, OUSU’s Access Officer, said after the forum how surprised she was that the different groups weren’t always aware of the similarities in what they were trying to do.
One way of encouraging this co-operation is by agreeing a common aim. The ultimate aim of everybody in the chamber that night was creating an Oxford that attracts the very best applicants from all backgrounds, and gives places based on ability alone. So why can’t our shared goal be a needs-blind Oxford? A fairer applications system needs to both encourage applications from students who would not consider applying and make sure that they can afford to study here. The University is increasing spending on access to £3.4m but the Office for Fair Access is right when it says we are “entering uncharted territory, none of us can predict exactly how the new higher fees will affect student behaviour”.
We should be pragmatic in our approach but must be ambitious in our vision. Many have spoken about the threats to access, the bad headlines and negative perceptions that put too many people off applying to Oxford. What a positive signal, what a bold move to say to those applicants that at Oxford, finance will be no barrier or aid to admission.
This isn’t an easy or immediate outcome, but an achievable one. Some American Universities can say to their applicants ‘we will not let your background prevent you from studying here’. Maybe its time for Oxford to say the same.