The missing link: the role of welfare in Access at Oxford

Comment

As the JCR Access Rep for Pembroke College, I was invited to attend our college’s OUSU hustings the weekend before last. Although unfortunately the turnout was low and the candidates only moderately interesting, there was one point that resonated with me from the night, made by one of the candidates for Vice President for Welfare and Equal Opportunities. She argued that it should a priority for access schemes across the University to make sure that those students from state-school backgrounds settle in well and that special attention is paid to their welfare whilst they are here. This affirmed an idea that I have been pondering for the past few weeks, namely about the connection between improving access to university (be it Oxbridge or other Russell Group universities) and making sure those from non-traditional backgrounds fit in well amidst the unique and often intimidating environment that Oxford presents to incoming students.

At present, it seems to me that many of those working in Access across the University (who, on a side note, do a fantastic job) neglect the very people they are trying to encourage to apply once that they actually arrive. In response, a major rethink of the role of those working in Access is required, to ensure that those coming from environments that are completely different from Oxford and Cambridge (or any other university for that matter) can successfully settle in and thrive both academically and socially.

Currently, the role of Access – at least at my own college – pertains mainly to efforts to encourage students to apply to Oxford who wouldn’t necessarily do so. Although colleges tend to do this well, with Pembroke in particular having a strong relationship with our core region in the North East and in Hackney, London, there does seem to be something quite short-termist in this approach. Yes, we have a responsibility to encourage those from diverse backgrounds to apply to university, but that begs the question – what then? What responsibilities do Access reps and those working on Access schemes have once the very people we encourage to apply to university get here?

Most, of course, will probably not find themselves faced with welfare issues, but there will be some who undoubtedly find the culture of universities such as Oxford both completely alien and, to an extent, intimidating. I know I found, coming from a state school and working-class family, some of the traditions in Oxford quite odd, if not quite “intimidating” per se, and I still think that some of these traditions feel very distant from my background. Of course, some will call for people like me to accept it and move on, that we must have had some awareness of what we were letting ourselves in for when we applied to Oxford. And that’s true, and I don’t dispute that – indeed, I voted to keep subfusc – but that does not mean that there shouldn’t be support for those who need it. And who better equipped to provide that support than the Access Reps and Access workers of the University, most of whom have probably had the same experience of feeling distant and isolated from the very “public school” culture that historically has been ingrained in Oxford life.

And that brings me to another pertinent point raised at the hustings. Access, across most of Oxford, is considered part of the Liberation movement – broadly defined as the collective efforts to open up and diversify the student body, and make those from “non-normative” backgrounds feel included. In my opinion, Liberation Reps, in order truly to represent those communities they claim to, must either have come from those backgrounds or identify as being part such a community.

In that sense, the Access Rep – in order to be effective as a representative and welfare role – should be someone from a state-school background at the very least, and probably someone who receives financial support from Student Finance through the Maintenance Grant. Although this may seem somewhat discriminatory against those who don’t come from such a background, but who are equally just as passionate about Access, I think the role would be immensely benefited from having the representative come from such a background, since their experience and grounding would make them knowledgeable and acutely aware of the issues surrounding integration into an academic community like Oxford.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of interest in the role shown within JCRs across Oxford, it doesn’t seem that Access or Admissions Officers are always from such a background. Although this is most definitely not the fault of those who do get elected as their college’s Access Rep, and while I don’t doubt that they do highly commendable work in their roles, it would surely be better if those that were tasked with giving support to those from non-traditional backgrounds shared a similar upbringing.

Access across Oxford has become a primary concern in recent years, and statistics from Pembroke and the University show how things are improving in terms of state-school admissions. But this is only half of the battle to achieve greater representation of students from under-privileged backgrounds. At present, a sixth of students receive a tuition fee reduction while a quarter of students receive some sort of financial support from the University (although this applies to all students from households with an income of less than £42,000 a year, which suggests that three-quarters of students come from households that earn above that threshold), which is a good start but should be expanded upon.

Given the government’s intention of transforming the Maintenance Grant into a loan, alongside the already damaging tuition fee hike and the cutting of EMA for sixth-form students, we arguably live in the most challenging times for prospective students from difficult socio-economic backgrounds. That is why we, as Access Reps and supporters of Access schemes across the University, should lead reform in order to ensure life at Britain’s top universities remains attractive and inclusive to all, and not the preserve of the élite.

IMAGE/ Mike Knell