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Why is the care leaver population so low at Oxford?

Last year, there were double the number of people in space than care leavers studying for an undergraduate degree at the University of Oxford. Out of the 9,000 care leavers who applied to universities across the board, only five were considered talented enough to get into the top university in the world. What is behind this seismic underrepresentation at Oxford? Is it that those from the care system are thick, or is it the admissions process? 

This subject is an angry tenant in both my head and heart, as I am a care leaver studying at Oxford. I’m a graduate student, so I don’t fall within these figures. Regardless, the barriers are the same. It probably doesn’t surprise anybody that our most significant hurdle is financial. For instance, we don’t have parents to go back home to between term times, so we require accommodation all year round. Oxford does provide some financial assistance to help with this. £3,000 per year and a scholarship for undergraduates. But this is only up to the age of 25, yet 69% of applicants from the care system tend to be mature students. For graduates, there is now the Academic Futures Programme. However, these things aren’t always as accessible as they seem. 

When I started in 2022, I found no support for graduate care leavers. Of course, there are the usual scholarships open to everyone if they apply before the January deadline, and I did. But, I was placed on a waiting list to be considered after the March deadline, so I was no longer eligible. 

These arbitrary cut-off points in the admissions process fail people from the care system. 

It’s hard to be what you cannot see. When I left the care system at eighteen, I could hardly read or construct a sentence, let alone write a whole argument. Somehow, the dream of studying at Oxford got into my head. I believe when you have a dream, you have a responsibility to yourself to make it happen. For ten years, I prayed at the altar of hard work, grit, determination, and resilience to realise it. But being told ‘we think you’re good, but we want to see if anyone better applies’ almost broke that ambition. 

Getting the offer to study at Oxford was one of the proudest moments of my life. It should be. But when it came through (the financial declaration) the elation quickly subsided, as it made one condition on my offer. Along with all the other challenges of being a care leaver here, would I now be able to afford it? The process makes no concession for background or circumstance. 

I’m not saying the process needs to be watered down to let more people in. Far from it. I would hate for that sense of achievement to be devalued just to be seen to ‘do the right thing’. It should be hard. But the barriers need be the same for everyone, no matter their background. Not a Takeshi’s Castle of obstacles littered through the admissions process, eliminating many of the care leavers until there are only a handful of us. I believe this institution is better than that. 

You have to be the change you want to make. Is the University of Oxford ready to change the admissions process to be more inclusive to those like me from the care system? After all, studying at Oxford shouldn’t be as tough as entering space.

Image credit: Pexels via Freerange.

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