On Wednesday evening, St John’s JCR and Oxford First-Gen played host to five speakers in a discussion entitled Working Together in Changing the Face of Oxford. The panel brought together speakers from a diverse range of organisations working to increase diversity in Oxford.

Dr Peter Claus kicked off by explaining how his access programme uses a regional ‘hub’ based model in collaboration with Russell Group universities around the country to take academically challenging courses to pupils in the lowest social quintiles. Claus is an Access Fellow and was awarded an Oxford SU award for Diverse & Inclusive Education in recognition of his work running the OxNet programme, which organises intensive, year-long, academic access programmes. 

The panel discussed the barriers in achieving admission to and success at Oxford. For Dr Jo Begbie, the co-ordinator of the Oxford Foundation Year, attainment is a major barrier in some areas, which means pupils’ schools are not equipped to prepare them for study at a high-performing university.

An animated discussion broke out, as Claus praised Begbie’s work on the Foundation Year but argued that the measures adopted at Lady Margaret Hall (and now by the University) are intervening too late in pupils’ education. His vision for access is a wholesale shift towards early intervention with pupils in the most gravely underrepresented regions on a much larger scale with an attainment pipeline to admissions .

Dr Begbie expressed her pleasure at the most recent Foundation Year results, which saw the entire cohort progress to undergraduate level at Oxford, whilst also showing her support for and pleasure at those alumni of the programme who have gone on to study and thrive at other leading universities.

Sofia Henderson and Safa Sadozai are the current co-chairs of the Oxford SU’s Class Act campaign. They agreed that students have ongoing needs after arriving on their course. Together with Beth Molyneux, VP for Access at Oxford First-Gen, they spoke of their experiences of arriving in the alien environment of Oxford in Freshers’ Week. Safa detailed Class Act’s important work in compiling information for students who meet social or financial barriers, including a report on the bursary and scholarship support available.

Meanwhile, Beth spoke about the work of Oxford First-Gen to provide first-generation university students with a ready-made support network in Oxford, running friendly events such as their First-Gen pizza evenings and organising a termly informal formal hall social.

In a comment to The Oxford Blue, Ms Henderson said: “Having these sorts of discussions in Oxford is extremely important and always valuable. It’s clear that there’s still so much to be done and, from our perspective, progress is of course welcome, but has been much too slow.

“In the next year, Class Act would love to work to stimulate discussion about the experiences of students from less privileged backgrounds and the issue of class inequality as a whole amongst Oxford students.”

It was agreed that all of this work is contributing to a dramatic transformation in access to Oxford and the environment once here. Dr Claus noted that frenzied concern about improving access seems to have suddenly erupted at the time when we’ve seen the greatest upturn in diverse admissions in history. The panel were aware that much more has to be done, but the evening proved very informative on the access work going on in Oxford. To keep updated on the work of the student-run organisations, Class Act and Oxford First-Gen can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Emmet O’Leary is a Class Liberation Rep at St John’s JCR and chaired the discussion ‘Working Together in Changing the Face of Oxford’ at St John’s on Wednesday evening.