‘Not everybody has a dedicated office space and a Macbook Air’: Oxford grad creates app to help improve access to university
The Cambridge Tab meets Joe Seddon, founder of social enterprise Zero Gravity
Access issues have been a hot topic for universities in the past few years with much discussion on how to get talented individuals to top institutions regardless of their backgrounds. Zero Gravity, the brainchild of Joe Seddon, a recent Oxford grad, is a new social enterprise that offers a solution to this problem. Students and undergraduate mentors sign up to the service and are matched according to preferences. The two then spend around an hour a week discussing the subject interests of the students, the application process and overall offering rich discussion and insight to give the student confidence for their application and any interviews they may face. I spoke to Joe less than a week after launching his new venture, to discuss the scheme, his goals and how social media can connect the best and brightest across the country.
Joe’s own background was the inspiration for starting his initial company Access Oxbridge, which helped set up low-income students with a current Cambridge or Oxford undergraduate mentor. “I originally come from a small town in West Yorkshire called Morley and went to a state school there and got into Oxford to do PPE in 2015. I realised from my time at university that there was a huge problem in getting students from backgrounds such as my own, not only low income backgrounds but also areas of the UK where very few people are going to university, into top universities. I decided to take a new, fresh and digital approach to this problem and spent a few weeks in my student bedroom after I graduated, coding on my computer to try and come up with a new digital solution and created Access Oxbridge. I set it up on a shoestring budget of £200 from the last of my student loan.”
Initially he wasn’t sure how successful the scheme would be. “Despite the limited resources I had, it got a lot of traction very quickly with lots of undergraduates signing up who were really enthused by this idea of doing access in a digital way. Since then Access Oxbridge has helped over 100 students from low income backgrounds get into Oxford and Cambridge over the past year. To give you a sense of proportion, of the incoming freshers this year to Oxford and Cambridge from low income backgrounds around 10% have come through the Access Oxbridge scheme.”
So after the success of Access Oxbridge, he made the decision to expand the business to help students get into other top institutions. “Access Oxbridge was a product that I started on my own as a student, self-funding and then reliant on a few people who helped me out along the way, but it then showed me the huge potential of online mentorship. I went out and found social impact funders who’d seen what I’d done and then wanted to scale that up and scale up the impact. I worked with them to build up a full-time team of social entrepreneurs to work with me. I believe digital technology can unlock the hidden potential around the UK which has gone so untapped for such a long time.”
The current situation exacerbates the problems Zero Gravity’s target audience face. The fact that schools have been closed, moved online and now in the coming month some will be opening while others remain closed, means there will be a massive level of discontinuity in teaching and knowledge. “Everyone knows there are huge inequalities with schools even within the state sector, the postcode lottery of school quality. You see that vividly now with some state schools who have sophisticated digital approaches and are still connecting with their students at home versus other schools that are struggling to adapt to the new situation and students are having very little contact with teachers especially students in year 12 about to make university applications.”
“There are other parts as well, including the digital divide. There is a huge divide across the country in terms of access to technology. Not everybody has a dedicated office space and a Macbook Air they can work from.” This is one of the best parts about Zero Gravity, as it only requires a phone. “I really concentrated on making a digital product that works well for those people who don’t have access to the latest technologies and don’t have a good home working environment. Our app is designed so it works completely from a phone and can be done from your living room or your kitchen. That’s really important because that’s one thing young people do have across the socio-economic spectrum, access to an iPhone or android device.”
So what does mentorship offer students, beyond what they get from schools? “For many students because they don’t know anyone who has been to a top university, maybe their parents didn’t go to university or no one at their school has, it’s just the access to guidance and someone who has been through the process themselves. There is lots of information online but it’s all very factual, cold information, and you can read as much of that as you want and it is useful but it is no replacement for actually being able to sit down with someone who has been through it.” However as many of us know, the university application and interview process is not just a case of absorbing lots of subject knowledge to regurgitate later.
“It’s also emotional and psychological preparation. Undergraduates are only a little bit older than our students and have just been through it themselves so they’ve got the greatest insight. It’s not about gaming the system. The main part of the mentorship is taking the tutorial system you have at Oxbridge and transition it to an online environment. It’s great to be able to allow young people to just talk about their subject together.” Joe brings up a great point here, because ultimately interviews, at Oxbridge especially, are like a mini supervision (except you have no supo partner to give ‘the look’ to when you have absolutely nothing to say and need bailing out).
“If you go to an underperforming state school where few of your friends are academic a lot of the time you’ve never been able to sit down one to one and have a discussion about your subject which goes outside the school curriculum. So being able to do that with a current undergraduate is really powerful and will expand your knowledge of the subject and get you used to that style of communication. If you’ve had a mentor and have been prepared over 6 months doing one hour a week then when you go to the interview it feels normal. That’s how you build confidence and ambition.” For students not applying to Oxbridge, mentorship still has huge benefits. “Suddenly you’ve got 6 months’ worth of content for your personal statement and you’ve encouraged a student to be bold and ambitious and get involved in other projects that enrich them academically.”
Signing up to be a mentor is an amazing way to give back and help foster future talent regardless of background. Importantly it’s also not an intense commitment. “It’s a 1 hour per week; it’s completely digital and signing up only takes 60 seconds. Students are incredibly busy and don’t need extra admin or have to be somewhere, so the app is designed to have an easy and convenient feel to it. The mentoring is also completely flexible. The app has an inbuilt calendar and video calling service and it is totally up to the mentor and mentee as to how the sessions work and when they are. We have a support hub on there with guidance for mentors but also for mentees, as we really stress that mentees need to take control and ownership over the relationship. It is not purely a teaching relationship; it is a two way thing.” Mentoring is also something you can do regardless of your own background. “Mentors sign up from a similar background to our students but so do others from more privileged upbringings. It’s great to see them want to give back as well because you can have brilliant mentors from a diverse range of backgrounds. When you have lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds mixing, all sorts of stuff comes out, a greater community understanding but also a diversity of ideas.”
Transitioning from an Oxbridge only scheme to one for Russell Group universities in general, I’m curious why he feels Oxbridge particularly, is characterised as a villain in the access argument. “It has been pinpointed by the media because there is a certain level of mystery about the interview process and can seem incredibly unfair from the outside because it is so incredibly opaque. We shouldn’t forget however that access is an issue at all highly selective universities. There are lots of other great universities in the UK so this shouldn’t be an Oxbridge only thing.” I also think Oxbridge’s perception as a highly traditional institution doesn’t do it any favours with those who feel it’s inaccessible and so I wonder how Joe suggests these institutions navigate tradition versus access. “It’s all about reinterpreting old traditions in the new world. There is no reason Cambridge should get rid of gowns at formal, it’s a nice tradition which people really enjoy but what you can do is allow people to reinterpret that outside the university. For example run social media that shows people from backgrounds you wouldn’t expect going to Cambridge, in gowns, talking about their experience. That’s how you break down those boundaries because that makes a person who is sat in their living room on the other side of the country, looking through Instagram on their phone, think ‘Yeah, that’s someone like me.’ That’s what universities need to up their game on; more use of social media to change perceptions of what their university is like.”
Joe certainly comes across as a massive advocate for social media, but Zero Gravity offers even more than just that. “We also have Zero Gravity Fund which is a registered charity, where donors who are particularly passionate about helping students, who are financially constrained, can donate and 100% of that will go to Zero Gravity students who face particular financial barriers.” This aspect of Zero Gravity is really crucial because mentorship can help get someone the offer they deserve, but there is no point if they can’t afford to take the university up on it. “I’ve seen this be really poignantly with our students who got to university, got help from the government and colleges and so they can tend to afford day-to-day living but what they can’t afford is academic or career enrichment activities. For example train fares to and from London for internship interviews, overnight stays or 10 different texbooks at £50 a piece online. Building a fund to help students overcome those financial constraints is really important, so we are hoping to grow that over the next year.”
What is Joe’s end goal with his access work? “We want to move towards a situation in which whatever background you are from, whatever school you went to you can go to a top university. That is partially reflected in statistics, and so one thing I’d like to see there is more applications from people who attend underperforming state schools and also more successes from those applications. There has been really good improvements in the past couple of years as universities have really doubled-down on access but as I said, we do run a real risk that gets reversed this year due COVID-19. Hopefully we can stop that dramatic reversal.”
If you are interest to signing up to work with Zero Gravity, head over to their page here. It really is quick and easy to sign up – I’ve done it myself. In the darkest of times choosing to do something like this is a great way spread some positivity and using your expertise when you’re limited in what else you can do. One hour of mentorship a week instead of another hour of Netflix is a pretty good deal I reckon.
Photo credits: Zero Gravity