Working to dispel the image of a university purely for toffs

Rachel Pickering is the Vice President (Access and Academic Affairs) at Oxford University Student Union

Rachel Pickering is the Vice President (Access and Academic Affairs) at Oxford University Student Union

First published in News

When meeting new people, I am always slightly wary of admitting where I attended university. The words ‘Oxford University’ rarely chime with positive stereotypes, more often eliciting remarks that I must be ‘posh’, or ‘rich’, or have attended a certain type of school or come from a certain area.

Completing my UCAS application in 2009, I too believed these stereotypes, fearing that I would arrive in Oxford (from the distant north) and not fit in.

What I learnt pretty quickly is that I’m just the same as everyone else.

I mean, yes, we do come from different schools and different places, and of course we are all individuals with our own passions and interests, but we are all admitted under one and the same criteria – that of merit.

Despite what’s often reported in the media, merit alone determines whether or not you get a place at Oxford.

Factors of age, race, religion, socio-economic background, school background and so on are not part of the application process – all tutors look for is students with the potential to excel.

So, you see, the problem is not our admissions process but encouraging those who, like myself aged 16 or 17, might be put off applying by the negative portrayal of Oxford in the media and myriad other factors (for instance the fact that we wear Hogwarts-esque gowns to exams).

Recognising this problem as a student, I immediately got involved in outreach events held by my college, Hertford.

I volunteered to show prospective students around college, ran myth-busting and ‘how to apply’ sessions, and returned to my old school to talk to Year 12s about applying to university.

And it’s not just me: students and staff alike are committed to ensuring that Oxford is accessible to all with the potential to excel here.

This commitment is multi-faceted, whether it be through the 2,400 outreach events held annually; through Oxford’s flagship UNIQ summer school programme for state school students; or by offering the most generous financial support for the most economically disadvantaged students of any university in the country for 2012.

Access is an issue that unites, and students have been campaigning on this issue at both a national and local level for decades.

That’s why, this year, I am working as the Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs at the student union (OUSU).

In this role I support our access campaign, Target Schools, which has run for more than 30 years and allows prospective students an opportunity to shadow current students and attend tutorials, lectures and so on – a great ‘day in the life’ experience.

I also support student access officers, run our Reach Scholarship scheme, which provides international students from low-income countries with fully-funded scholarships, and produce our biennial alternative prospectus – a guide to Oxford for prospective students written by our students.

Yes, Oxford faces challenges in ensuring the brightest do apply, and often receives negative national press when it comes to issues of socio-economic background and diversity.

But Oxford has an engaged student and staff body and student union that are committed to ensuring Oxford is an accessible university to which the brightest, irrespective of any other factors, apply.

I am proud to be part of it.

Comments (1)

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7:12pm Mon 5 May 14

eaglegray says...

As a Canadian, I'm not sure what you mean by 'toffs.' I suppose that in Canada the rich are the equivalent (but not all of them, and probably few). We have a mayor in Toronto who is rich; but he is also a mental midget, a card-carrying boor, a toxic alcoholic and vulgarian. Also, many higher educated people here do not speak much better than their plumber.
If, in England, a toff is a person who is well-bred, well-spoken, intelligent, and well-mannered—I would say, What's wrong with that?
England should be proud of a university full of such young people.
Don't be always so critical of your wonderful Oxbridge traditions.
As a Canadian, I'm not sure what you mean by 'toffs.' I suppose that in Canada the rich are the equivalent (but not all of them, and probably few). We have a mayor in Toronto who is rich; but he is also a mental midget, a card-carrying boor, a toxic alcoholic and vulgarian. Also, many higher educated people here do not speak much better than their plumber. If, in England, a toff is a person who is well-bred, well-spoken, intelligent, and well-mannered—I would say, What's wrong with that? England should be proud of a university full of such young people. Don't be always so critical of your wonderful Oxbridge traditions. eaglegray
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