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Accessibility is More than a Bullet Point – On Liz Truss’ Oxbridge Pledge

As one of the final two Conservative candidates in the bid to become the next Prime Minister, Liz Truss has pledged that all students who achieve three A* at A-Level be given an automatic interview for Oxbridge. Not only is this pledge loaded with logistical misunderstanding, but also lacks the sensitivity and thought that is needed to increase accessibility to Oxbridge. As well as this, Truss is fuelling the narrative that graduating from Oxbridge is the only route to success in later life – an idea that needs to be deconstructed entirely in order for British society to become more egalitarian.

Explaining her pledge to reform Oxbridge admissions, Truss argued that not enough students are putting themselves forward by applying. This premise alone fails to recognise the disparities that exist between students who are capable of going to Oxbridge – the problem is not in the numbers, but the reasons behind these numbers. Interviewing thousands more students will not solve this. In themselves, too, these reasons vary but ultimately can be traced back to the reputations of both Oxford and Cambridge as historically exclusionary and elitist institutions. If Truss genuinely cares about demystifying these stereotypes – which I doubt she does – there are much more effective means to do it.

The students that don’t put themselves forward are disproportionately affected by a mystified Oxbridge. For example, despite their academic potential, a student from a lower socio-economic background who doesn’t know anyone who goes to either Oxford or Cambridge is likely to be deterred from applying, through fear of not fitting in with people who were privately educated or who have had both parents attend Oxbridge. The reality is, however, that not everyone at Oxford fits this stereotype. By encouraging more interviews, Truss fails to distinguish between this student and their Eton peer, who aspired to attend Oxbridge from a young age. The root cause is not addressed.

Accessibility is about empowerment. It is about knowledge – addressing the legitimate fears that state school students have and enabling them to make an informed choice about what studying at Oxford or Cambridge is like. In my opinion, the most effective way of doing this is through summer schools or school trips through organisations like UNIQ, The Sutton Trust, and Aspire Liverpool. Before I attended UNIQ, I was convinced Oxford was not for people like me. On the train home, I realised I wanted to apply, because the Student Ambassadors proved my preconceptions entirely wrong – they were friendly, loved their subject, and were from a similar background to me. I was also given a mock interview which hugely increased my confidence in what was before an unfamiliar situation.

An alternative, then, to Truss’ push for more interviews is increased funding of these outreach schemes. They have the power to increase equality of opportunity for prospective students. As well as funding, making these schemes more widely known is another idea, for example through advertisement in schools – especially schools that send little to no students to Oxbridge each year.

Not only does Truss’ pledge demonstrate her lack of understanding about accessibility, but it also brings countless logistical concerns. To name the most obvious one, there aren’t enough resources in terms of tutors and time. There would be hundreds more students to interview.

This pledge is also a radical misrepresentation of the admissions process itself. Truss, who herself studied PPE at Merton College, seems to have forgotten the other elements to an Oxbridge application. The process is holistic, encompassing not only an interview but also a specific personal statement, admissions test, and written work. Would these students be forced to prepare for and sit an entrance exam too, or is Truss suggesting an entire redefinition of the admissions process? Regardless, the emphasis upon the interview stage is an unfair one. There is definitely an argument to be made for interviews favouring those who are able to articulate themselves more confidently, aided through specific Oxbridge preparation classes offered at elite private schools or through societies like debating. I worry that with more interviews, the students who don’t have access to this sort of training will simply be overlooked. This is why a holistic admissions process works: where a quieter, less confident student may struggle slightly at interview, having been taught in a class of thirty, their written work is able to articulate their full ability and potential.

Now, back to Truss’ point that students are not putting themselves forward. Radically, this is okay! Choice is integral when making decisions about higher education and next steps in life. Not every student with high predicted grades will want to, or should, apply to Oxbridge. Suggesting the opposite fuels a dangerous narrative, one that already dominates British society. Out of the past 57 Prime Ministers, 43 studied at Oxbridge. Though an Oxbridge degree undoubtedly opens doors, it shouldn’t be perceived as the only route to success when societal barriers prevent so many people from applying in the first place. There are so many ways you can have a happy and successful life – being an Oxbridge graduate isn’t a necessary criterion for this.

So, Liz Truss, accessibility isn’t just a fun bullet-point you can add to your pledges to get a few more votes from your fellow Conservative MPs. It’s important, and there isn’t one blanket solution to the discussion it invites. And this solution is, by no means, mass interviewing.

Image credit: CC-BY-SA-4.0

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