Joe Seddon: Oxbridge's ivory towers need a level playing field

EVERYONE knows that gaining a place at one of Britain's most prestigious universities is incredibly tough. Not only that, but the odds are heavily stacked against you if you are working class, black or Northern.

Graduate Joe Seddon has launched a new initiative to make Oxbridge more accessible to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In 2015, 82 per cent of Oxbridge offers were given to students from the top two social groups; only six per cent of offers went to students from the bottom two social groups. Oxbridge regularly admits twice as many students from Eton as it does students eligible for free school meals.

And each year one in four Oxbridge colleges fail to make a single offer to a black British student, while the same colleges make more offers to applicants from four of the Home Counties than the whole of northern England.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This is despite both Oxford and Cambridge universities having outreach programmes to narrow these class, ethnic and geographical divides.

I, myself, am a beneficiary of one such programme: I attended the University of Oxford’s UNIQ summer school as a “disadvantaged student” in August 2014. Although I was educated at my local state grammar school, the post-industrial Yorkshire town in which I grew up has one of the lowest rates of university take-up in the country.

Attending the UNIQ scheme dispelled some of my worst fears about being an Oxford student, and gave me the encouragement I needed to apply for Oxford’s renowned PPE degree. Still, I could not help but feel a distinct lack of confidence about my chances of gaining a place.

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 an admissions test, and I was wholly reliant on an overburdened history teacher at my state sixth-form to introduce me to the format of an Oxford interview.

However, with a little bit of luck, I gained a place at Mansfield College – then led by Labour peer Baroness Helena Kennedy – which stands apart from all the other Oxford colleges in offering 88 per cent of its places to students from state schools. I was lucky enough to be interviewed at a college which strives to ensure that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are given a fair chance.

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 station waiting for the train home.

In many ways I still remain in a state of perpetual shock that my 17-year-old self was somehow able to navigate an environment so alien to the conditions in which I had grown up.

This shock was amplified when I started studying at Oxford and began to repeatedly 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 programmes to encourage disadvantaged students to apply is by no means enough. Convincing disadvantaged 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 rigorously coached to succeed in a process which began roughly from the day they were born.

As a result, I decided to create Access Oxbridge. It is is a non-profit organisation which seeks to give disadvantaged students access to the skills and resources they need to make a successful university application. We connect disadvantaged students with Oxbridge mentors who deliver live video tutorials ranging from personal statement advice, admissions test guidance, and realistic Oxbridge-style mock interviews. All students who attend non-fee paying schools and come from low socio-economic backgrounds or areas with low university take-up automatically qualify.

We cannot afford to sit idly by while talented students are let down by an unfair system. The only way to address the structural inequalities which prevent disadvantaged students from going to Oxbridge is to tackle them at their root.

With more than 100 mentors on board so far, it is clear that many current Oxbridge students are passionate about making a real difference to young people’s lives. Through Access Oxbridge, I hope to have taken the first steps to making Oxbridge truly accessible to all.

Joe Seddon is the founder of Access Oxbridge, a non-profit organisation which connects disadvantaged students with mentors. A recent Oxford graduate, he lives in his hometown of Tingley.