The Paradox of the Oxford Bridging Programme

Nina Savedra critiques the limitations of bridging programmes for underrepresented students at Oxford and calls for a system redesign.

My journey to Oxford was not dissimilar from the majority of students here. I worked hard during GCSEs, studied rigorously for A Levels, and achieved the highest possible grades. Despite being the first from my school and family to go to Oxford, I wasn’t worried about starting here, and I still assure prospective students that the private/state divide is not as much of an issue here as it may seem. 

However, while I felt like any other matriculating student, I was not treated as such. The summer after A Levels, I was invited to two different residential bridging programmes: one university-wide, and one run by my college. After I confirmed my place on my college’s programme, I was excited, as I knew it would give me the opportunity to get a feel for Oxford life earlier than other freshers – I would be ahead of the game!

I couldn’t get a clear answer from the organisers about the selection criteria for the programme, but I assumed it was because of my low-income and state-school background. I later found out that the programme was intended both for state-school students, and for students living with physical and learning disabilities, which seemed like a questionable grouping for a programme like this. For many, these bridging programmes are heralded as a lifeline for state school students, offering an opportunity to acclimate to the rigorous academic environment of Oxford. Yet, my experience has left me questioning their true purpose. The bridging programme perpetuated a sense of marginalisation, creating the feeling of being an outsider for the first time. 

Although the social aspects of the course were great (we got to arrive two-weeks before freshers’ week, experience a formal hall, and meet other Oxonians, all for free), the academic side of the course was questionable. We were given lectures on how to take notes, make spider diagrams, and plan essays. It felt almost insulting that we – students who the university accepted on the same terms as everyone else – were being labelled as people in need of extra academic support, just because of our backgrounds. 

When the programmes introduce simple academic courses like this, they perpetuate stereotypes about state school and low-income students. They unintentionally reinforce the idea that we lack the necessary skills and experiences to thrive at Oxford. The message is clear: you need extra help to be on par with the others. It’s disheartening to start your Oxford journey feeling like you’re already behind. 

While well intentioned, the resources that these programmes provide can be more of a burden than a blessing. The extra ‘support,’ which I’m sure some people appreciate, can lead some to feelings of imposter syndrome, making you question your own abilities and right to be at the university. The line between support and marginalisation suddenly becomes rather fine.

While programmes to support underrepresented students are essential, colleges should redesign them to be less stigmatising and more inclusive. These very programmes meant to help us have fallen short of their sole purpose. The time has come for change, for a more united and diverse Oxford, where students can be celebrated for their potential rather than pigeonholed by their past.