Sulaiman Iqbal: Team UPside and achieving real diversity within the university space

‘We shouldn’t miss out on this opportunity to create positive social change’

Meet Team UPside: a committee of seven people and a network of over 100 volunteers offering free services to young people from less-advantaged backgrounds to tackle higher education opportunity gaps.

The Tab was lucky enough to interview its founder and Chairman: Third-year Jesus College student Sulaiman Iqbal. We discussed the incredible work that Team UPside’s done, barriers that young people from less-advantaged backgrounds face, tackling the elite image of Cambridge, and the worrying impact of the pandemic on the education gap.

Team UPside: The importance of ‘community’

The story of Team UPside began when Sulaiman went home after his first year at Cambridge had ended, with an idea to “give back to a local community that had given me so much”. With the support of a couple of friends, he called up his local London borough of Ealing, asking for a space to give students free GCSE/A-level tuition, university application help and CV support. They were given a four-week trial in a local community centre, and Team UPside went from strength to strength ever since.

Fast-forward to 2021, and Team UPside has collaborated with In2_Law to give 180 mock interviews to Oxbridge applicants. Furthermore, their volunteers, who mostly come from BME backgrounds, include students from universities all over the UK including Cambridge, Oxford and LSE. If that isn’t enough, they also have a thriving YouTube channel, podcast and weekly newsletter (you can find out more about all of these on their Instagram).

For Sulaiman, Team UPside will always be associated with community. In a recent talk with TedxCambridge, he outlined the importance of “local actors with local solutions”. He envisions a future for Team UPside where, alongside reaching an online audience, there is “a network of youth-led organisations across the UK that support their local communities”.

Team UPside’s committee (Credits: Sulaiman Iqbal)

‘Information gaps, opportunity gaps and mentorship gaps’

For Sulaiman, there are three main barriers to young people from less-advantaged backgrounds applying to Oxbridge:

Information gaps: “A lot of young people from these backgrounds don’t know the subjects on offer or what the application process entails”. As such, Sulaiman describes how part of Team UPside’s mission is to “expose them to this information”.

Opportunity gaps: Sulaiman notes that “Britain likes to think of itself as a meritocratic society”, however, in his experience, “it’s a bit of a rigged game”. He describes how, for all university courses there needs to be more opportunities for young people from less-advantaged backgrounds “to gain work experience and develop an enriched understanding of the subject”.

Mentorship gaps: We discuss how there is a need to “see people with similar stories to you in these spaces”. Sulaiman describes how many of the volunteers at Team UPside “come from backgrounds and BAME cultures that are not usually represented within Cambridge”. He points out that as long as Cambridge or other institutions are considered to be elite white spaces: “It just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy”.

Team UPside sees it as crucial for these students to “realise their potential and raise expectations of their own abilities”.

Team UPside‘s Youtube offers some amazing interviews and insights (Credits: Author’s screenshot of Youtube)

‘I think that Cambridge University could always do more’

Our conversation turns to Cambridge. Sulaiman acknowledges that although the university “does a lot of good work”- especially the new foundation year scheme for disadvantaged students– “it could always do more”. He explains how the university “has a responsibility” to ensure that “talented students are given an equal opportunity to shine”. He outlines some of the ways that they could help:

The University “could provide more mock interviews”. He’s found that when it comes to interviews: “It’s more than just your knowledge of the subject, it’s your ability to communicate and articulate your ideas”. He suggests the possibility of giving mock interviews to schools “where students are not being given much support, to create a more levelled playing field”.

He also acknowledges the importance of student-run societies and initiatives. He’s found that sometimes “the best help comes from other young people”, and that there is “always room for the university to provide more support to these societies and initiatives”. He wants “young people involved in access work to not feel burdened, but empowered by their work”.

Team UPside in the early months of their enterprise (Credits: teamupside on Instagram)

Covid-19 and the education gap: We ‘can’t just stop when lockdown ends’

A recent children’s commissioner report has shown that roughly nine per cent of families in the UK do not own a laptop, or other equipment vital to home learning. Furthermore, primary school data has indicated that the disadvantage gap has increased for the first time since 2007. Sulaiman emphasizes that we need to acknowledge how the pandemic “will have a long-term impact on children’s education”.

During the current lockdown Team UPside have been providing free GCSE and A-level tuition to Sulaiman’s local area in West London. They’re also in the process of organising online workshops with local schools, and have a wide range of podcasts and YouTube videos interviewing students about their university journeys. However, Sulaiman acknowledges that, though they’re doing everything that they can, there’s going to be “a lot of ground for everyone to make up”. He adds: “this kind of service can’t just stop when lockdown ends because the gap will not simply close”.

Sulaiman concludes that “for there to truly be diversity within the University space”, we need to “make institutions like Cambridge more accessible to young people from all socio-economic, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds”

Team UPside can always do with more volunteers! So if you’re happy to give up 30 or 60 minutes of your time to help tutor students on a Saturday morning please go to their Website, Facebook, or Instagram.

Feature image credits: Sulaiman Iqbal and Jess Marais.

The University has been approached for comment.

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