Access initiatives: more important now than ever

Comment

The Sutton Trust has today released a study showing that in 2012, the last year for which we have data, 25 percent of all Oxbridge entrants were from just 40 schools, and that 260 successful applicants came from just five schools – three private schools and two sixth form colleges. These figures make for harrowing reading for anyone involved in promoting Oxford (or Cambridge) to kids from schools or areas that have very little or even no history of sending their students to Oxford.

Future access work needs to be not just determined and committed, but co-ordinated and strategic

The question for me is: how do we respond to each bout of grim data? How do we respond when a new film comes out showing Oxford as a haven of elitist scumbags (albeit, in the case of Riot Club, very beautiful ones) in tailcoats who say things like “I am sick to death of poor people”?

There are, I think, two possible responses: the first is that we could get disheartened and miserable and give up. In that scenario, nothing would immediately collapse; Oxford, after all, would still get more than enough applicants to fill our places without access work. The other option is that we could use these moments of despair to make us focus on what we are doing, to force us to ask ourselves some difficult questions: is our access work having an impact? Could it be better? Are we doing it to make ourselves feel better or to change the lives of young people?

We need to prevent dreaming spires from becoming ivory towers. PHOTO/Tejvan_Pettinger
We need to prevent dreaming spires from becoming ivory towers. PHOTO/Tejvan_Pettinger

Over the next year OUSU’s focus is going to be about asking ourselves these tough questions. In ten years we have moved as a university from simply waiting for students to come to us, to having a vast array of different projects all full of passionate staff and students keen to make a difference. That represents an enormous improvement, but it comes with its own challenges. My suggestion today, my response to another set of miserable statistics or to the next awful film, is that we redouble our efforts, but make those efforts smarter.

The next ten years of access work need to be about an effort that is not just determined and committed but co-ordinated and strategic, that is really seriously targeted at the people who need our help the most, and that honestly measures its own impact and is willing to cut programmes and projects that don’t achieve results. We need to work more closely together around the University, turning our collection of independent, noble projects into a collaborative whole.

We must redouble our efforts, but make those efforts smarter

Every one of these annoying bits of news needs to be a spur that pushes us to be better, to work harder, to do more, achieve more and make sure that that is what the young people of Britain know about Oxford University and its students. Then, I hope, whenever the kids we are trying to reach see a negative piece in the press or a distorted portrayal in film, that will not be all they know about us. They will remember that we are also passionate, determined and effective people trying our best to open the doors of this particular ivory tower to bright young people whatever their background.

James Blythe is OUSU Vice-President (Access & Academic Affairs) for 2014/15. He read Classics at Brasenose before starting his year as a sabbatical officer and was JCR President there. He’s on Twitter @ousu_acaff, or email access@ousu.org

PHOTO/Chris_Chabot