Joe Seddon founded Zero Gravity to address inequality in the UK's higher education systemZero Gravity with permission for Varsity

Oxford graduate Joe Seddon founded Zero Gravity from his childhood bedroom in Morley with the remaining £200 from his maintenance loan, aiming to “take people on that long term journey into uni, into work and into life.” Since then, the organisation has gone from strength to strength, supporting over 8,000 students into university, including more than 800 into Oxbridge.

Seddon was inspired to found the platform, which pairs students with mentors studying their subject at university, following his experience reading PPE at Oxford. He says: “I felt completely out of my depth” while applying, before realising he couldn’t be alone in this. Indeed, had it not been for an interviewer on BBC Radio Leeds asking whether he would apply to Oxbridge following his GCSEs, he may never have applied: “I was completely flummoxed by the question because it had never even crossed my mind.”

“It had never even crossed my mind”

He recalls being “blown away by the grandeur” of Oxford during his interview, leading to another near miss in getting a place. After not performing his best in his first interviews, Seddon went to a pub for a Diet Coke (still being underage) to “chill out”, not realising there was a 10pm curfew at the college. “I was so embarrassed,” he says, “I didn’t want to be the interviewee ringing the college porter asking to be let back in after ten o’clock.” Luckily, he was able to sleep in the room of a school friend, but Seddon remarks that this “just shows you the mentality of a nervous 17-year-old who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. And maybe if it wasn’t for my friends who got me out of that socially awkward situation, I probably would never have got a place.”

The unknowns didn’t end there. His first term was “a baptism of fire”, being set two 3,000 word essays on the first day of Freshers’ Week. “I thought it was a joke at first. In my mind, Freshers’ Week was the week where you got settled in, went out, got pissed and maybe made some friends and maybe made some bad decisions.” Alongside navigating academic challenges, Seddon grappled with “the guilt of moving away from home”. Coming from an area “where even the concept of going to university was a fairly fresh, new thing for the vast majority”, the move to Oxford entailed a shift in identity, not just location. We often speak of imposter syndrome, but “social mobility guilt” is a further challenge lots of students from under-represented backgrounds face.

It is well-known that many PPE students are “wannabe politicians” – three of the last four prime ministers are Oxford PPE graduates – but Seddon quickly “became quite cynical about the ability of politics to solve big social issues”. Trickle-down social change was not going to work, so he decided to take “a more entrepreneurial route”.

This decision, turning down corporate job offers, was initially met with scepticism: “I don’t think my mum was best pleased with me, in all honesty, and my friends thought I was a little bit crazy.” He acquiesces that she “understands it now”, before joking that people in Yorkshire thought an entrepreneur “was an innuendo for unemployment”. We laugh, but Seddon points out that building a startup is not a widespread pursuit outside of London, which made it harder for him at the start.

“Students have been thrown under the bus by government policy”

“I think I probably would have given up, but it was that deep passion for the mission which kept me going”, he says. This passion is clear as we discuss the current state of UK higher education. Although he is pleased that progress has been made, with the ratio of state to private school students at Oxbridge having shifted from 50-50 to 70-30 since he started at Oxford, “we’ve got a lot more work to do”. Other institutions besides Oxbridge, such as Durham, Edinburgh and Exeter, are highly unrepresentative; they “need to get their act together” and work towards widening participation.


Mountain View

I try to speak for those who don't have a voice': Lord Simon Woolley, Principal of Homerton

Financial pressures on students are mounting with the ongoing cost of living crisis, especially for those who “can’t rely on the bank of mum and dad”. Seddon is emphatic in his outrage: “Almost every single government entitlement has been uprated in line with inflation … apart from the student Maintenance Loan, which has decreased in real terms, and I think students have been thrown under the bus by government policy.” Zero Gravity has distributed £1.5 million in scholarships to low-income students to help them complete their degrees while focusing on their long-term career prospects, but there is still “a long way to go” to close this financial gap.

Seddon has received numerous awards, yet he remains humble, initially believing the letter notifying him that he was on the King’s Birthday Honours List was “an unpaid utility bill”. Upon discovering the truth, he recalls that “it was a nice moment, but to be honest, I never founded Zero Gravity to win awards or honours.” He worries that the charity sector is losing focus but emphasises that he and his team are “not going to rest on [their] laurels”. This is clear from his five-year ambition to make Zero Gravity “not just a UK phenomenon, but something that operates across the globe”. He wants to expose UK students to international opportunities and encourage social mobility around the world, defying borders as well as gravity.