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New Colleges for disadvantaged students are not the way forward

It borders on patronising


Recently, the Guardian published an opinion piece by Andrew Adonis entitled "Oxford and Cambridge must launch new colleges for disadvantaged young people." If you haven't guessed from the headline of this article, the very headline filled me with a little rage. And my opinion in return, is that it should make you feel a little enraged too.

To start, Adonis and I do agree on one thing. Oxbridge, and Cambridge specifically, have an access problem. It is ridiculous eight elite schools send more students every year to Oxbridge than nearly 3,000 state schools and colleges. The university should be doing all it can to promote access initiatives and ensure students from all across the country are given places based purely on their academic potential.

However, it seems fairly clear that having a college separately for this would do much more harm than good.

To begin, it's a logistical nightmare. Perhaps a boring argument to start with, but an important one. It is very easy to say "disadvantaged students." But what does that mean and who does that cover? What would qualify one as being "disadvantaged enough" to be accepted?

A problem with access initiatives in general is that there are many reasons why someone may face barriers in applying to Oxbridge; it is not something that can be boiled down to schooling and postcode. The suggestion that the creation of a college for access students would solve this is uncomfortably short-sighted – it makes the whole idea feel poorly thought out.

It seems to disregard the well-being of the very students it wishes to help. This is something Adonis briefly addresses with the throw-away "will the new students be regarded as second class? Only if they aren't as good as the others." But that isn't really the key question.

Students attending these access colleges would be labelled; singled out as a disadvantaged student who is different from their peers. Academically they would be equals but personally they're likely to feel outcast. Impostor syndrome is bad enough for many in the current state, there's no need for the university to facilitate it further. Even with the best intentions, students would feel that they got in on some lowered criteria or through a back door.

Having these new colleges for disadvantaged students would let the older colleges off the hook. Currently all colleges are encouraged to have access initiatives (which are obviously done to varying levels of success). And I can't help but think, what would these new colleges mean for somewhere such as Johns where less than 50 per cent of students are from state schools?

For the older colleges, the pressure could be off. Photo credit: Cmglee, from Wikimedia Commons

I think Adonis' assumption that new colleges would prompt the old into an access drive is bizarre. If anything, it would most likely take the pressure off. The "Area Link" system whereby each college has its access constituencies could seem irrelevant and as for Class Act? Would they work with the new colleges or just with the old? It's likely to create some sort of segregation between the two, with the "disadvantaged" students feeling remote. The fact that they would feel less able to attend the historic colleges could foster feelings of difference – that their Cambridge experience was a world apart from the lives of those living in the well-established medieval halls.

Access to higher education in general is an issue. Oxbridge is not outside of this problem, but very much part of it. The suggestion of new colleges seems a well-intended but ultimately ill-thought-out, top-down approach that – past the statistics – has little consideration for the students it aims to benefit.

The university needs to fight for equal student opportunities. However, this goal will never be achieved with the current schooling system whereby so many schools nationwide, often in disadvantaged areas, are under-staffed and under-funded. It's about creating a culture in which students see Oxbridge as accessible and have the resources to get there. It is all very well saying that there would be places reserved for disadvantaged students, but in the current state many would not be in a position to take them up.

The university is not in charge of government funding, but it can help these students see that Oxbridge could be for them: a bottom-up approach that would not create the sense of segregation and impostor syndrome that these new colleges certainly would.

Yes, more has to be done regarding access at Cambridge. But, speaking as a bursary student who could perhaps qualify for a "disadvantaged" place, I believe that these new colleges would not be the answer.

Cover image licensed from Wikimedia Commons, author: Cmglee