Why applying to Oxbridge shouldn’t be scary

Speaking in The Guardian, Mary O’Hara looks at applying to Oxbridge:

“Twenty years on from my graduation, it is upsetting that many of the barriers my generation faced are so prevalent for poorer youngsters today; that they are still so underrepresented in our top universities, and that those from privileged backgrounds retain their stranglehold on the professions. Just 7% of children are privately educated, yet they account for more than half of top doctors, judges and barristers.”

Oxford and Cambridge both conduct extensive outreach programmes, yet great difficulties remain in setting a more reasonable balance.

Nevertheless, the work goes on for staff at Oxbridge and they continue to face the challenge head-on. In most circumstances, it’s not for want of trying… Outreach is important; Oxbridge want to hear from engaged minds, no matter what their background and situation in life.

photo by deadstar 2.1

photo by deadstar 2.1

University College Oxford (also known as ‘Univ’) produces an Alternative Prospectus to help dispel fears and break down some of the barriers that exist for some students who would otherwise find a great place waiting for them. The guide, written and produced by current students, aims to give prospective students an idea of life at the college. It recently reached the finals of the Higher Education Liaison Officers’ Association (HELOA) Innovation and Best practice Awards 2010-11.

Anne-Marie Canning, Access Officer at Univ, kindly took some time out of her super busy outreach schedule to talk with me about the success of the Alternative Prospectus:

What first prompted you to design an ‘alternative’ to what was already on offer?

AMC: Alternative prospectuses are a bit of an Oxford tradition. Written by students for students they’ve been running for a few years. We’d had one at Univ for the past few years and we realized we kept running out of them before we ran out of our ‘normal’ prospectus. So we decided to reduce expenditure on our traditional formal prospectus and spend a little bit more on the alternative version. The alternative prospectus gives students more freedom to produce something really exciting. The students were really key in setting out what sort of publication they wanted to produce and we worked with a really imaginative designer to facilitate the project.

The alternative prospectus has a great feel as a newspaper. But how do you push the alternative side to those who prefer a more digital flavour?

AMC: We do have a PDF version of the alt prospectus available and we experimented with an e-reader but we found it to be fairly inaccessible and a bit buggy. You can see the new PDF is treated in a way that gives it an newspaper look. We also have a cool little tab on our Facebook page that loads up the lo-res PDF once you click it. It’s worth a little gander!

The ‘Univ guide to Oxford’ map is a great idea. Do you have any plans to make it an ongoing, interactive effort that can change and expand over the academic year?

AMC: The guide changes each year and we put a big map in the lodge with loads of pens and pins and people come and pop their favourite place. It’s not live but it does evolve and I really like the idea of keeping things nice and simple and lo-fi. I think on the ground engagement has a lot to be said for it rather than just having a techy solution. It also raised a lot of awareness and interest in the prospectus project amongst the student body. We obviously used lots of online media platforms to generate content though, so I think the answer is to use a mix of the two approaches.

How do current students and academics feel about the work you’re doing? Do you find them jumping in to help the cause?

AMC: I would say work that we’re doing rather than what I’m doing!

Current students drive much of the work we do here in college. Univ was the first college top set up an ambassador scheme which supports over 60 students in visiting schools in their home areas and volunteering on a variety of outreach projects. The ambassador scheme is a collaboration between the College and the Junior Common Room. Students are involved with e-mentoring, video-making, creating their own taster days and volunteer on a regular basis to welcome school groups to University College. But my favourite project is our Roadshow to South Yorkshire – 8 students go up to south Yorkshire and visit as many schools as possible in the space of four days to talk about the application process and what it is like to be a student at Oxford.

I think the fact that our tutors were willing to submit photos of themselves as teenagers for our alternative prospectus shows just how involved they are! Our outreach plans are made in conjunction with fellows of the College. They go and visit schools themselves and are really pivotal in offering a variety of subject taster days and our teachers’ conference and open days.

Is the alternative prospectus a hit with high-performing students who wouldn’t usually consider Oxford?

AMC: The alternative prospectus is enjoyed by all different sorts of applicants. I think giving an honest view from the ground is really appreciated by everyone. This year about 80% of applicants to University College said the alternative prospectus was invaluable in helping them to make their application choices.

Your “What is a tutorial?” page is useful, putting across an important aspect of the learning process at Oxford. How daunting do prospective students find new ways of learning, in your experience?

AMC: The teaching style at Oxford is unique. We don’t want people to apply to Oxford because we’re Oxford. We want people to apply because they love their subject and think the tutorial system would suit their learning style. Yes, it’s challenging but it’s also exhilarating. Here at University College we do a lot to support students in transitioning into university level study. We run a pre-sessional Maths week for all of our students in the sciences and maths subjects to consolidate their knowledge. We also team up 1st years with 2nd and 3rd year students via our study buddy scheme. The study buddies scheme gives first years a friendly face to ask any questions and get some advice related to their studies.

Does any one aspect of the prospectus outshine the others when students are choosing where to apply?

AMC: No, students would like information about all elements of the Oxford experience in my experience. Potential applicants want the full picture!

Higher education is going through a great deal of change right now. What type of changes, if any, do you envisage for future editions of the alternative prospectus?

AMC: I think we’ll respond to what our prospective applicants would like. We love our little newspaper but if people want something different then we’ll respond to their needs!

Finally, do you have any other words of wisdom or reassurance to high-grade students who aren’t entirely sure about applying to an Oxbridge college?

AMC: We’re looking for two things in our students. One is academic achievement and the other is passion for your subject. If you have those two things then give it a go! The only way to ensure you don’t get into Oxford is by not applying to Oxford. And if you don’t get an offer the chances are you’ll be going to another fantastic university (like York, my own university)!

Anne-Marie also told me that Univ have just launched a stop motion tour of the college, so you can get an inside view of the place. I’ll leave you with the tour below. Remember, you saw it here first. 🙂

5 comments

  1. That stop motion video is amazing!

    It’s so refreshing to see a piece about Oxbridge which focuses on how you CAN get to the university, rather than trying to portray the universities as wantonly elitist.

    The work done & passion I’ve seen by the outreach team there doesn’t match up at all with the media portrayal of the unis and-if anything-proves what everyone in higher education (and areas of this government, if Nick Clegg really does believe in the Sutton Trust’s research) have known; that universities are not the troll-like gatekeepers to higher education, the are like the scouts that help little old ladies across the road…or something.

    Seriously, there was a good simile there when I started writing this post…

    Michael Gove needs to start looking at widening participation within his department, we need a cohesive national knowledge management strategy (perhaps as a continuation of my Generational Knowledge Framework? *cough*) which looks at the lifetime of a student, focusing specifically on how we wish to see a talented student from any background progress and creating the support structure around that student to ensure it.

    This guy agrees: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qLPdI7bZnI

  2. Great post and what a refreshing change! I went to Cambridge from a state school (grammar school then sixth form college) background and my experience there simply doesn’t match up with the ‘wantonly elitist’ image (to borrow’s Newell’s terminology) that politicians and the media seem so keen to perpetuate (I guess because it’s nicely emotive and locks into our instinctive anti-intellectualism). Oxbridge want high achievers, but more than that, they want people who can respond to, engage with and benefit from the particular experience that’s on offer there (with the tutorial/supervision at its heart). I never got the impression that tutors would let class/accent/background get in the way of that core commitment.

    Having said that, I think there probably is a broader issue about the enduring status of historical brand amongst policians and journalists (and the expansion of provision for universities able to recruit AAB entrants likely to feature in the White Paper reflects this). They may talk the talk of widening participation, or parity of esteem for teaching, or the importance of diversity in the sector but I’m not sure these agendas have any real traction with them beyond the political, certainly not enough to dislodge a habitual and deep-seated preference for the so-called ‘top’ universities (regardless of any evidence that destabilises received understandings of hierarchy, such as the RAE)

    It’s good that colleges like Univ are articulating to students what is distinctive about their educational offer so prospective students are well-equipped with the information they need to make the right decision for them. But it’s just as important for institutions in other parts of the sector – because they do offer something distinctive, not a lower-grade version of the ‘elite’. A genuinely student-led system will not develop unless we can unhitch ourselves from hierarchies and genuinely focus on distinctive strengths.

  3. Newell & Alix, you’ve said it all. I really don’t have anything much else to add to that. Thanks for your comments.

    Yes, universities do have distinctive offerings. The more that can be done to communicate the unique experiences on offer, the better. Students aren’t one dimensional and neither are the institutions they attend.

  4. I liked this article. It is challenging that universities offer variety of modules to students & it is great that every student must go through every prospective module & come up with great results. Oxford is a place where if one go,there is nothing to fear about their future. The teaching style at oxford is unique. We’ll respond to what our prospective applicants would like.

  5. Great post, completely hits the nail on the head – what we need is positive media coverage of the outreach initiatives not perpetatuion of myths about elitism and prejudice.

    What Univ and other colleges do is incredible. Next step should be to get even more people in on this, spread the message and make the good work bigger.

Comments are closed.