Access Oxbridge was created by Oxford graduate Joe Seddon to supercharge access to the UK’s most prestigious universities using the power of digital technology
Everyone agrees that the socio-economic status and geographic area in which a person was raised should not dictate their chances of success in life. A true meritocracy ensures that everyone – no matter their background – is given a fair chance to achieve their dreams. However, democratic societies are yet to realise the ideal of true meritocracy. Privileges and disadvantages continue to be entrenched across generations despite politicians and other social leaders paying lip service to the idea of opportunity for all. For many, if not most, the existence of a meritocracy remains a myth rather than a reality.
In few places is this more apparent than in access to Britain’s most prestigious universities. Both Oxford and Cambridge claim to be engines of social mobility, but the reality is that both institutions reflect the deep structural inequalities which pervade British society. In 2015, 82% of Oxford offers were given to students from the top two social groups; only 6% of offers went to students from the bottom two social groups. Such glaring inequalities increasingly matter in a world in which the financial rewards of education are continually rising; with Oxbridge graduates expected to earn a £400,000 lifetime premium compared to graduates from other British universities.
Socio-economic inequalities also interact with ethnic and geographic inequalities, further highlighting the extent of the division. Each year, one in four Oxbridge colleges fail to make a single offer to a black British student, whilst the same colleges make more offers to applicants from four Home Counties than the whole of Northern England put together. This is despite both universities engaging in a number of outreach programs to narrow the class, ethnic, and geographic divides manifested in their student bodies. Both universities consistently spend over £100,000 recruiting each student they admit from a “disadvantaged background”; a figure which reflects a distinct lack of success at broadening admissions more than any deliberate generosity on behalf of the Oxbridge colleges.
Despite being more fortunate than many, the post-industrial Yorkshire town in which I grew up has one of the lowest rates of university participation in the country. In 2017, only seven students from my local constituency applied to study at the University of Oxford: all seven were rejected. As a result, is it any wonder that students from backgrounds such as mine feel a distinct lack of confidence about their chances of gaining a place? Although I possessed a stellar academic record, I had no experience in writing a long-form essay; let alone a personal statement capable of impressing a world-leading academic. I did not know anyone who could help me prepare for a university admissions test, and I was wholly reliant on an overburdened teacher at my state sixth form to introduce me to the format of an Oxford interview.
However, with a little bit of luck, I managed to gain one of the highly sort after places. Whilst this may sound like an unadulterated success story – a rejoinder to those who claim that the door to Oxbridge is shut to all but the most privileged – I must emphasise the role luck played in my personal success. I gained a place at Mansfield College, which stands resolutely apart from all the other Oxford colleges in offering 88% of its places to students from state schools. I was lucky enough to be interviewed at a college which actively strives to ensure that students from underrepresented backgrounds are given a fair chance; many others are not so fortunate.
The memory of my Oxford interview remains with me to this day: the trepidation of scaling the ivory tower steps for the first time; the horror of being locked out of my college accommodation after a late night at the pub; the sheer exhaustion as I stood at the platform of Oxford station waiting for the train home. In many ways, I still remain in a state of perpetual shock that my seventeen-year-old self was somehow able to navigate an environment completely alien to the conditions in which he had grown up.
This shock was amplified when I started studying at Oxford. It was not long before I began to hear stories of how fellow students had been privately educated since the age of three, had various tutors commissioned to take care of their every academic need, and been rigorously prepared for the Oxbridge interviews by parents, tutors and teachers alike. It quickly became apparent that establishing university outreach programs to encourage state school students to apply is by no means enough. That is only the first hurdle: the more difficult challenge lies in giving those students the resources and confidence to compete on a level playing field with their privately educated peers.
The onus is of course on Oxford and Cambridge to reform their admissions procedures to ensure that talented students do not slip through the net. However, there is no use in merely railing from the sidelines and pointing the finger at institutions which inadvertently perpetuate the worst of Britain’s structural inequalities. These students need solutions to their problems, not just diagnoses.
One such solution dawned on me as I came to the end of my time at university. The power of digital technology makes connecting likeminded individuals easier than ever before, whilst online video communication can be used to facilitate interactions which are both engaging and highly convenient. Moreover, in increasing access to Oxford and Cambridge, Oxbridge has a huge untapped resource: its own students. Students at both universities are passionate about giving back to the next generation and ensuring that Oxbridge is able to recruit the most academically gifted students, whatever their background. That’s why so many of those students volunteer to take part in access schemes throughout their time at university.
From this insight I set out to develop the online platform which would become Access Oxbridge. Over the course of two weeks – utilising programming skills I self-taught during my teenage years – I developed a mobile-friendly App where state school students are matched and mentored by current undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge. Over the next month I recruited over 500 current undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge who were then digitally matched with over 150 aspiring students heralding from all four corners of the U.K. Before I knew it, 50 of those students had won places to study at Oxford and Cambridge – Access Oxbridge had worked!
Access Oxbridge is a sanguine example of how technology can be a force for good when employed for socially beneficial purposes. The vicious cycle of social immobility once appeared impossible to break: now technology has the potential to create virtuous cycles of success and achievement in places previously ignored by governments, businesses, and charities alike. By developing an innovative system which provides state school students with the information, guidance and confidence required to succeed, I hope to have contributed at least somewhat to making meritocracy not merely a noble ideal but, indeed, a reality.