"We must be wary of classifying people’s experiences in a way that implies some students are more suited to access work than others"Louis Ashworth

Access efforts are, by nature, personal. They relate to your sense of belonging in a place, making them so much more fraught and tense. However, we should celebrate the unique insights that different students can offer the access movement. There is no prize for the most disadvantaged: we must recognise that diversity in the backgrounds of students involved in access work makes these efforts all the more effective.

There is undoubtedly a crucial role played by less privileged and typically state school educated, students in access work. To prospective students, these current students show that Cambridge is not a university exclusively for the wealthy and privately-educated. Research from the Sutton Trust revealed that “high-achieving independent school pupils were twice as likely as state school pupils to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, even with the same ability and predicted grades.”

Efforts like the CUSU shadowing scheme are key to changing this inequality in application ratios. We have to recognise the power of seeing yourself in an institution you previously thought ‘wasn’t for the likes of you’. As a recent Varsity article on the power of role models saliently put it: “If we want to break down societal barriers, we need to provide relatable mentors.”

Current students’ experiences of applying offers insights into explaining the shocking statistic revealed by the Sutton Trust last year that Oxford and Cambridge recruit more students from the eight top schools than almost 3,000 other English state schools put together. Understanding the plethora of barriers facing state-educated students is essential if this disproportion is to be resolved.

“Understanding the plethora of barriers facing state-educated students is essential if this disproportion is to be resolved.”

In both CUSU and JCR elections for access officers, individual experience is seen to play a key role in candidates’ campaigns. Similar attention is paid to the backgrounds of college access ambassadors who give information to prospective students on open days and during school tours. And so it should be. Each of our unique experiences of applying to Cambridge offers valuable insights into how access efforts can be improved for prospective students.

However, implying that access work should be exclusively for those from the ‘most disadvantaged’ backgrounds restricts the pool of knowledge the access movement can draw from. It also leaves the brunt of access work solely to current students from less privileged backgrounds. These are students who are often struggling with issues like the infamous ‘imposter syndrome’ and who may receive less emotional or financial support from family during their time at university; as such, giving them an extra burden in the form of time-consuming commitments overloads an already stretched group.

Without denying that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have unique and valuable insights to offer, we should recognise that access efforts should also be taken up by students from more privileged backgrounds. Anecdotally, private school students tend to receive extensive support for their personal statements and interview practice from specially employed Oxbridge tutors, alongside being frequently taught by teachers who may have attended Oxbridge themselves and therefore have more experience and insight to offer in the application process. This privileged experience means that students coming from these sorts of backgrounds are well-placed to help prospective students from less advantaged backgrounds with their applications. Sharing the resources they were afforded with those whose schools have fewer resources to support applications is a key way in which privately educated students can support access efforts.


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The burden of access must not fall on individual students

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There is, of course, a tension between having a diverse range of students working to improve access and the risk of more privileged students speaking for their less advantaged peers. Speaking on behalf of people is very different from creating spaces where their own voices can be heard, and must be avoided at all costs. In the Cambridge student body, people from lower income and state school backgrounds are over-represented as access ambassadors. Students who are already disadvantaged are making up the majority of the labour force in access efforts. We need wider representation of students in access, but with the caveat that privately-educated, wealthy students must be aware of their privilege and open to challenge if they are to engage critically in access efforts.

The diversity of our student body should be celebrated, not categorised. We must be wary of classifying people’s experiences in a way that implies some students are more suited to access work than others. Debating who is best to do access work slows the process of making Oxbridge more equally accessible and does little to further the cause. It only detracts from other priorities, dividing what needs to be a coherent movement based on the principles of solidarity and equality.

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