Despite the pandemic, these students from low-income backgrounds bagged Oxbridge places

‘I was running to the public library the night before my interview’

When Antonia Antrobus got the notification on her phone telling her she’d earned a place at Cambridge, she smiled, felt a huge wave of relief, and then went downstairs to her mum.

Pretending she didn’t know what just happened, she went up to her mum, who was sleeping on the sofa bed in the living room, and opened the email. “I’m not an amazing actress but she just fell hook, line, and sinker,” Antonia said.

The South Londoner grew up on a council estate, living in a flat with her mum and gran. At her school, the classrooms were so badly equipped that in science labs the chairs brought your head level with the table. “Chemicals? Be careful of your eyes,” she said. “It was a fight to get the good chairs.”

Now, she’s got an offer to study at Murray Edwards College, and will be starting at Cambridge later this year.

New stats show how the country’s top unis are slowly becoming more accessible to students from places that don’t usually send people to university.

The numbers have shot up at Oxford and Cambridge. Since 2015, Oxford has managed to increase the percentage of its students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds by a fifth. Cambridge has increased its proportion by three quarters.

Both unis now take a larger proportion of disadvantaged students than Imperial, King’s, UCL, or Queen Mary do.

However, a number of top unis have gone backwards in that time. At LSE, the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds fell by a fifth, by 17 per cent at King’s College London, and by 10 per cent at Southampton.

The progress of Oxbridge is in part due to a host of access initiatives. After making it to Oxford from a single-parent household in Yorkshire, Joe Seddon started Zero Gravity, offering mentors to kids like him trying to reach the country’s top unis. This year, Seddon says the programme has got over 150 people into Oxbridge.

Fiona Zeka’s parents are Kosovar refugees who came to London after the genocide in the 90s. The day before her Oxford interview, Fiona found herself running around Newham, in East London, trying to find somewhere to do the interview. She didn’t have the space to do it quietly at home, let alone a study of her own, so was trying to get space at the public library. In the end, her school – closed to most pupils because of lockdown – let her do it there.

“It was really hectic – if it wasn’t I would have had a much better interview experience,” she said.

During her application, Fiona had been doing mentoring with Zero Gravity. She had a mentor from her chosen college who had been taught by the academics who’d be interviewing Fiona. They’d go through poems together and try to demystify the whole process. “It helped me to break down all those myths about literature – the idea that poetry is something scary, that academics are scary,” Fiona said. By the time she got to her interview, she felt she could be herself, “without the fear of having to be buttoned up and sound super formal.”

Fiona’s offer to study English at Hertford College came as she was sat at the kitchen table, using her family laptop to do her history lesson over Zoom. When she started typing on the class chat that she’d got into Oxford, she was met with the typical level of enthusiasm you’d find in any Zoom lesson. “People were just like, great but let’s get back to the lesson,” she said, “so I ran upstairs. My parents were still in bed, I hugged them, there were tears all round. I didn’t stop shaking for a few hours.”

Antonia first applied to Cambridge a year ago, but didn’t get in. She was due to do a gap year and then go to Warwick, but changed her mind while sat watching Boris Johnson announce exams would be cancelled.

“I basically thought I’m not going to be in school from March and then my whole gap year, what am I going to do,” she said. After signing up to a number of initiatives and this time round – including Zero Gravity and Target Oxbridge, she nailed the interview and got her place.

She credits mentoring with her increased confidence: “The last time, it felt like an interview that was just flopping really badly. This time round I was being pushed and I was able to actually bounce off those follow up questions. It felt dynamic.”

For students like Antonia and Fiona, the colleges and quads of Oxbridge can still be a daunting place. While progress has been made, less than one in 20 Oxbridge students are from low-participation backgrounds. The impact of the pandemic is yet to play out in the statistics.

Recalling an access trip to Oxford in year nine, Antonia says her first impressions of the uni were as stuffy and a bit off. “We stood out as a group of 20 black and brown kids on an access trip,” she said, adding “I didn’t really feel that comfortable there.”

Along with access schemes, it’s the normal things which make these unis seem like attainable goals. Antonia cites a number of Cambridge YouTubers – Ibz Mo and Chiedxa among them – as people she would “watch and rewatch religiously” while applying for Cambridge. In contrast to the less relatable set of Oxford YouTubers, “Ibz Mo and the Cambridge YouTubers seemed much more people like me,” she said – something which played a part in her choosing Cambridge.

Fiona, too, speaks of a mix of nerves and excitement. But for her, the effort to pay it forward has already started – she’s been making guides for future students wanting to do English lit and passing her email around.

“We haven’t had examples to look up to,” she said. “I feel a weird kind of responsibility”.

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How the coronavirus crisis could keep working class kids locked out of top unis

Revealed: The unis who let in the fewest state school students

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