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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Oxford’s outreach is great: How do we make it even better?

Thomas Coyle writes on the urgent need for access and outreach - and how we can make it even better.

My introduction to Cherwell was reading a Features article, just after I’d received my UCAS offer. It was a well-written expose on Oxford’s secret drinking societies. One section of that article caught my eye; a reference to how the infamous Piers Gaveston society had started selling ‘reduced price access tickets’ to its balls. 

Access, outreach, support, opportunities. Oxford’s new buzzwords – and rightfully so. Nobody can deny the success of schemes like UNIQ, Opportunity Oxford and Target Oxbridge. I certainly can’t – if it wasn’t for the opportunities the week-long UNIQ residential gave me, I wouldn’t be writing these words today. I wouldn’t be at Oxford at all. This institution needs to be open to the world, not a closed-off cesspit. 

But those ‘reduced-price access tickets’ did little to allay the same fears I’d felt before my UNIQ residential, in that they continued the same imbalances and inequalities UNIQ had tried to prove didn’t exist. Access and outreach are being commodified in box-ticking exercises, without attention being given to why such access schemes are necessary at all. Oxford’s access schemes prove that the University is changing, but the students it attracts are still stuck in their archaic past, drenched in privilege and faux-exclusivity.  

The success of schemes like UNIQ and The Sutton Trust’s residentials is that they don’t just make the information regarding access available, but they enable a holistic experience of Universities, just like we have as Oxford students. There is a limit to this, however. The most recent pre-pandemic figures available online indicate that UNIQ accepts somewhere around 1500 students to attend in-person, with more invited to an online programme. Yet Oxford normally has upwards of 3,300 undergraduate places per year; with just 1 in 18 of these being a UNIQ graduate. The scheme is increasing opportunities, absolutely; but it is limited by its size and funding. 

This might be addressed by Colleges taking on their own access work, but the majority of such schemes fall into the pitfall of simply making the information available – meaning they are simply not as effective as more holistic University experiences at inspiring people to apply. YouTube videos – like those released by Jesus College – are informative but limited. They often don’t offer a student’s perspective – instead focussing on how an academic perceives the admissions process. Their ‘natural’ audience is small, so they rely on clickbait titles and atrocious thumbnails. If they don’t indulge in such practice – as my own College‘s YouTube channel proves – then much of the engagement is from alumni disagreeing with the direction their ex-College has taken. Don’t believe me? Just check out the comments on Hertford College’s 2030 Masterplan video

Such videos don’t reach the desired audience; appealing to those who want to know about Oxford as an institution, rather than Oxford as a potential university. Their comments are filled with questions from those looking to affirm that they have ‘Oxford intelligence’, and not what the reality of studying here is. 

It hasn’t always been this way, though. Hertford – my college – pioneered a revolutionary scheme in the 1960s to address the imbalance in Oxford admissions. Neil Tanner – then Hertford’s Tutor for Admissions – would visit schools that had never sent anybody to Oxford. He would interview those selected by the school’s senior leadership – those that actually understood the pupils. He would interview these pupils early, without an admissions test, and give them an offer to study at Hertford if they got two ‘E’ A Level grades. Hertford would shoot to the very top of the Norrington Table as a result. Ironically, the scheme was killed by the standardisation of admissions across the University – the very same standardisation that would eventually spawn UNIQ. 

This historic approach addresses all of my concerns about ‘modern outreach’. It isn’t a Piers Gav-style box ticking exercise, as Tanner himself knew the difficulties faced by disadvantaged students in accessing higher education, having himself received a scholarship to Cambridge. It didn’t just make information available, as they connected directly and personally to the students in question. It didn’t require an active search for information about Oxford, as word of the scheme was spread by teachers; those that truly understood their pupils.  

As a (occasional) history student, I’m not a fan of the cliché that we should look to the past to learn for the future. There are eminently more practical, useful applications for history. But this scheme is worthy of modern emulation, bringing ‘reach’ back into outreach. 

I’m not trying to talk current access schemes down – instead I’d love to see them expand. Everybody who has a chance of studying here should be aware that they have that chance. I wasn’t aware; a teacher had to email and tell me to apply to UNIQ. How many more potential students will be denied all the opportunities of Oxford simply because they weren’t aware of them?

I fear that it will come down to us, as students, to do the heavy lifting. Studytubers (as much as I dislike the term) offer a realistic and personal take on applying to Oxford, drastically better than the corporate style currently shared by Colleges. Social media is a powerful tool to share the personal stories of applicants – just look to @humans_of_Oxford_University. 

I’m proud that I arrived at Oxford having benefited from its access schemes. I’m just worried that there will be countless more ignorant teenagers like me, denied opportunities through no fault of their own. 

Image Credit: Thomas Coyle

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