Access Oxbridge was created by Oxford graduate Joe Seddon in response to his own experience of the Oxbridge admissions system and the growing online education industry
Everyone agrees, at least in principle, 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 social background – is given a fair chance to achieve their dreams. No democratic society, however, is yet to realise the ideal of a true meritocracy. Privileges and disadvantages continue to be entrenched across generations despite politicians and other social leaders paying lip service to the idea of equal 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 and, indeed, sustain 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 returns to education are continuously 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. This is despite both universities engaging in a number of outreach programs in an effort 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 an underprivileged 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 most, 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 myself feel a distinct lack of confidence about their chances of gaining a place at the UK’s most prestigious universities? Although I possessed a stellar academic record, I had no experience in writing long-form essays; 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 – like many – 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 much-vaunted 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 underprivileged 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 successfully navigate an environment completely alien to the conditions in which I 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 and teachers alike. It quickly became apparent that establishing university outreach programs to encourage state school students to apply is by no means enough. Convincing state school students to apply is only the first hurdle: the more difficult challenge lies in giving those students the resources and soft skills to compete on a level playing field with their privileged peers. A talented student from a disadvantaged background will be no match for an applicant from a privileged background if the privileged student has been coached to succeed in a process which began roughly from the day they were born.
The onus is of course on Oxford and Cambridge to reform their admissions procedures to ensure that talented students from underprivileged backgrounds 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 endeavoured to sustain myself financially at Oxford after my maintenance grant was cut. Oxbridge students are in high demand by private tutoring agencies who harness their skills and intimate knowledge of the Oxbridge admissions system to the benefit their international clients. As technology has developed, private tutors have been able to deliver their tutorials through online communication software such as Skype and FaceTime. This has made private tuition – often costing in excess of £100 per hour – more accessible than ever for the most affluent in society. Having tutored a number of Chinese students throughout my time at Oxford, I began to wonder whether online education services could be extended to cater for students unable to afford the inordinate fees.
Almost all of the Oxbridge students who have experience tutoring international students nevertheless care deeply about extending access to Britain’s most prestigious universities. The vast majority of Oxbridge students are keenly aware that they are the beneficiaries of an unfair system and are willing to support causes which seek to rectify the situation. That is why so many volunteer to take part in access and outreach campaigns throughout their time at university.
That being said, how much more could be achieved if those same students gave up an hour per week to deliver video tutorials to state school students instead? This is the idea at the foundation of Access Oxbridge. Access Oxbridge seeks to harness the power of the growing online education industry to deliver a service which rectifies rather than perpetuates social inequalities. We connect state school students with Oxbridge mentors who deliver live video tutorials ranging from personal statement advice, admissions test guidance, and Oxbridge-style tutorials. All students who attend non-fee paying schools and come from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds or areas with low university take-up automatically qualify.
Access Oxbridge is a sanguine example of how technological change can be employed for socially beneficial purposes. We cannot afford to sit idly by and bathe in righteous condemnation whilst talented students are let down by an unfair system: the only way to address structural inequalities is to tackle them at their root. 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.