Clare College has uploaded taster lectures and guided tours to its YouTube channelLouis Ashworth

Many higher education experts have emphasised the ‘unique difficulties’ faced by BME and low-income students as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. It is thought that these difficulties might cause significant reductions in access to higher education, and particularly to Oxbridge, for disadvantaged groups.  

Sickness, caring responsibilities and bereavement disproportionately affect young people already statistically more likely to be alienated from higher education and Oxbridge, including those from BME and low-income households. 

In a joint statement to Varsity, the Colleges identified a lack of access to technology, suitable study spaces and school support as some of the most significant difficulties to students from ‘widening participation’ (WP) backgrounds during the pandemic. 

Access to Technology 

Lack of access to adequate technology and internet connection pose particular problems to the University’s outreach programmes, which have for the most part been shifted online as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. These have taken the form of subject-focused webinars, online resources on ‘super-curricular activities’ and ‘university readiness’ skills (such as meta-cognition), and virtual workshops. 

The joint statement commented on potential issues surrounding prospective applicants’ access to technology and an internet connection, pointing out that students from WP backgrounds are less likely to have a computer, laptop or tablet, and are more likely to share IT and have slower, shorter term or nonexistent internet connections. 

However, the Colleges did not seem to offer solutions to these problems, as the vast majority of their access work now takes place online. This means many events are potentially inaccessible to some students lacking the necessary technology to take part. 

Amy Bottomley, President of CUSU’s Class Act Campaign, pointed towards the emphasis the Colleges seem to have placed on “virtual events or online resources”, and underscored the importance of “reaching students who do not have access to adequate resources” such as an internet connection, for instance through “offline remote WP work”. 

However, the joint statement emphasised that whilst “challenges for disadvantaged students to access online outreach are very real, moving to online outreach can also remove some of the challenges felt by particular pupils and schools who would not have been able to afford the transport to attend events such as Taster Days and Open Days”. Online outreach events may  also be less likely to conflict with prospective students’ caring duties. 

Bottomley also noted that some concerns about the format of virtual events and online resources appeared to have been disregarded by the colleges. She underlined the importance of closed captions on webinars, image and diagram descriptions at speaker events, access breaks and advance provision of written materials in order to increase accessibility of online events for as many people as possible, pointing out that there is often “resistance”  to making changes of this nature. 

Home Conditions

Studies have also shown that students from low-income and WP backgrounds are far less likely to have home conditions conducive to academic study throughout the quarantine period, impacting upon their ability to complete coursework and summative assessment. 

The widespread closure of study spaces such as libraries and community hubs due to the pandemic, where internet access is often reliable and free, is also more likely to disadvantage prospective students and applicants from WP backgrounds. 

Sidney Sussex College is among those organising online courses to replace residentialslouis ashworth

Bottomley stated that certain groups of students appeared to have been “overlooked” when discussing these difficulties, noting that “students in unstable or unsafe housing will be facing countless additional challenges during this time that [have] not been acknowledged in this response from the Colleges”.

She furthered that “estranged students” or students without “support networks” have not been afforded the same consideration by the Colleges as students suffering illness and bereavement. 

School Support

The University also acknowledged that prospective applicants may struggle to an increased extent with navigating the application process due to the widespread closure of schools, as well as the cancellation of outreach support and summer school programmes. 

To combat this problem, Colleges such as Christ’s, Murray Edwards, Sidney Sussex, Trinity, King’s and Newnham have organised online courses to replace access residentials, while other Colleges have established online tours and Q&A sessions. 

The access team at Clare College has uploaded taster lectures, interviews with students and guided tours to their YouTube channel for prospective students to explore, while Pembroke College has hosted personal statements webinars and online collaborative interview workshops. 

Some colleges have even reported finding that they are now reaching a wider audience than they did when running in-person events. Wolfson College’s Outreach and Recruitment Officer, Hannah Elkington, commented that “we are actually reaching more people this way as no one has to find time for, or pay for, travel to Cambridge. I can definitely see our College doing more virtual events in future as they remove some real barriers and the reception has been amazing”. 

Caring Responsibilities and Regional Disparities 

Other hurdles the University noted were the disproportionate pressures felt by students with caring responsibilities and those who have suffered sickness and bereavement. 

A report from Public Health England published in early June stated that “mortality rates from COVID-19 in the most deprived areas were more than double the least deprived areas”. It furthered that “people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British.” 

Both students from deprived areas and those from Black ethnic backgrounds are identified by the University as important groups in WP considerations. 

The report also noted regional disparities in the effects of the coronavirus: London had the highest diagnoses rates and death rates in confirmed cases, followed by the North West, North East and West Midlands. It has been reported that students from the latter regions are substantially less likely to apply to Oxbridge in normal circumstances.

The University stated that “Colleges have responded to this situation by working collaboratively to ensure that no area of the country is disproportionately affected by the inability of Link Area colleges to host or visit schools”. 

Teacher Assessments 

It has also been argued that reliance on teacher assessments for A-Level grading will put BME students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds at risk of unconscious bias, as the performance of high-attaining disadvantaged students is often undervalued by their teachers. This in turn could contribute to a widening of the attainment gap and setbacks in access to higher education among these groups. 

The University remarked upon the danger of students being “underpredicted” by their teachers, and noted that this “may also have a negative impact on students’ perception of their own abilities and mean that they are less likely to apply to competitive universities”. 

However, they also stated that “teachers know who their disadvantaged pupils are”, and clarified that “provision of information for teachers is a priority, with webinars produced and an online conference planned”. 

In an interview with Varsity at the end of May Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education Graham Virgo said he was “very concerned” about potential inequalities in predicted grades, and sought to reassure that these grades would have “a form of moderation”. 

Unconditional Offers

Additionally, it was suggested in a Sutton Trust report from April that a potential surge in unconditional offers, which research has shown “students from areas with historically low rates of participation in higher education are more likely to receive” will put pressure on prospective students to accept offers from lower-ranking universities in favour of more selective universities such as those in the Russell Group. 

At the end of May, the Guardian reported that ‘private government data’ showed that 30,000 grade-dependent offers had suddenly been changed to unconditional following the onset of the pandemic in March. Additionally, in March it was reported that Universities may face limits on how many students they can recruit in coming years in order to reduce financial challenges to the sector. 

The Office for Students (OfS), the independent regulator for higher education in England, expressed worries this month that Universities may lower grade boundaries or engage in predatory marketing strategies in a bid to attract students to cover budgetary shortfalls following the pandemic. 

University Demographics 

Demographic concerns about the representation of Black students and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds at Cambridge have been a topic of much discussion in recent years. Cambridge has frequently come under fire for low admissions diversity, after it was revealed that six of Cambridge’s 31 colleges admitted fewer than 10 Black students between 2012 and 2016. 


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Before the pandemic struck, access to the University appeared to be on the rise: 91 Black students were admitted in the academic year beginning October 2019, up from 61 in the 2018/19 academic year. Among the 2019 cohort of students, one in four came from an under-represented or disadvantaged background. 

Last year, the University introduced a five year plan to widen participation and “admit a student body in which no identified priority group is underrepresented”. 

The issue of educational inequalities post-pandemic has been hotly disputed in recent months, as plans for school reopenings fluctuate. Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has contended that children’s six-month absence from school will cause inequality to “go up”.

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