Interview: Cambridge Head of Widening Participation discusses the challenges access work now faces

‘I think that one of the challenges will be continuing our collaboration with schools’

Amidst the challenges presented to education during the COVID-19 crisis, many have expressed concerns the current situation will negatively impact the academic opportunities of those from less privileged backgrounds. For Cambridge in particular, many of the WP (widening participation) events that have proved vital to improving access are now unable to proceed as planned.

The Tab Cambridge met with Cambridge Head of Widening Participation Tom Levinson to discuss the potential risks and challenges that access work now faces, and the ways in which the University means to address them.

It is estimated that the University now invests around £2.5 million each year on engaging with UK state school students and in particular those from underrepresented backgrounds. Although there is still a long way to go, Levinson acknowledges that the past few years have proved successful: “I’ve been in this job since 2008, and things have improved a lot since then. We’re definitely doing more, so I think the scale of what we’re doing has increased considerably.

“When I first came to Cambridge there were quite a lot of disconnected projects happening, being driven by very small groups of people. There were quite a few things happening that, historically, were just being done because people had always done them rather than questioning why they were being done. I think we’ve got much better at that, there’s nothing we do now that doesn’t have a structure behind it, and a way of evaluating how and whether it’ll be successful or not.”

Access work has continued to evolve, with the University introducing its first concrete plan concerning widening participation last year. The five year plan, which was intended to run from 2020-25, committed the University “to widening participation, and to achieving an intake that is reflective of UK society and providing equality of educational opportunity for all those who study at Cambridge. The ultimate objectives are to admit a student body in which no identified priority group is under-represented, and to eliminate gaps between such groups in continuation, attainment and progression.” Unfortunately, the current situation means that we may not see the promised success of this plan.

Perhaps most concerning is the effect the lockdown has had on summer schools, such as the ones run by The Sutton Trust. Each year the university can expect around 40 per cent of participants on the Cambridge Summer Schools to go on to apply to Cambridge, with a success rate above the institutional average. The residential experiences have proved crucial for encouraging those from underrepresented backgrounds to apply to the university, and while they are continuing in an online capacity this year, it is uncertain how successful they will be.

Commenting on the situation summer schools now find themselves in, Levison said: “One of my big concerns is the Summer Schools. The Sutton Summer schools are a really important event every summer, they have about 500-550 year 12s participate every year. All are from state schools and most meet multiple WP criteria. A lot of them apply, and a lot of them get in, so it’s really important to us.

“We sent out letters at the end of April/start of May offering students places on the online version that is now running instead. Obviously in the past the response rate was really good, because what we were giving them was a week in Cambridge, there was a social aspect to it as well as academic. They got to see the place and go punting and meet other students from around the country, so it was an easy sell. I was quite concerned this year that we were trying to sell something that was essentially access to a website for a week, of course there’ll be some teaching and resources, but it’s clearly not the same.

“However, so far the response rate has actually been really good. I would have said if we’d got a 50 per cent response rate this year that we were doing quite well considering the circumstances, but actually it looks like it’s going to be around 90 per cent.”

It remains to be seen whether or not these online alternatives will prove successful. Without the opportunity to meet new people, explore the university itself, and have in-person contact with members of the University, it would unsurprising if a smaller number of participants chose to apply this year.

Levinson shared that there were some “tentative plans” for WP events to be held in September, in which teenagers from different circumstances would be given the opportunity to visit Cambridge. Although it is still very much hoped that these will be able to continue, he acknowledged that “realistically it’s unlikely to be possible, because the application window is so small, so we’re very limited with time for this year’s prospective applicants.”

Discussing the potential long term effects of the crisis, Levinson outlined some of the challenges that the university may face: “I think that one of the challenges will be continuing our collaboration with schools. Schools are going to have to work quite hard to ensure that there isn’t a disproportionately negative effect on disadvantaged young people. We rely on relationships with schools to liaise with young people and engage them with our activities and events.

“What I’m concerned about is at what point that is going to be deemed an acceptable risk. If this disease is going to be floating around before a vaccine is found in one form or another, and that vaccine is hypothetically 12 months away, there could be a situation where in the 2021 academic year we are very limited in terms of actually being able to interact face to face with young people.

“It’s uncertain at what point schools will say that bringing a group of young people to Cambridge, even if we install the proper risk measures and precautions, is an acceptable risk to take. From their perspective it probably isn’t an acceptable risk to take until things are in a much more stabilised position.”

Levinson also acknowledged there are concerns that a large number of students may be negatively impacted by a lack of access to reliable WiFi and a quiet working space. While the government has promised to lend laptops or tablets to those who do not currently have access to them, it is clear that this situation will be far less educationally damaging to some that others.

In a final comment concerning the current state of access, Levinson said: “It’s a very challenging and concerning time, I think we’re putting in place all the measures that we can, and we’re just going to have to test and refine as we go.”

Despite the progress that has been made in Cambridge access over the past 10 years, most people will agree that there is still much more that needs to be done. It remains to be seen how much the COVID-19 crisis will hinder this process.

Photo credits: Foshie Pixabay (Creative Commons License), Tom Levinson Twitter

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