Viewpoint Editor Joe Waters and University of Cambridge student Henry Lloyd-Hughes examine the ways in which elite universities can widen their access to less-privileged students.
Joe Waters: St Andrews
As a bright-eyed, naïve, young seventeen-year-old submitting my UCAS application, I assumed I’d have no issue with attending a prestigious institution. All three of my serious choices were institutions with a woefully unrepresentative number of state-schooled students, after all.
I assumed, wrongly, that when the time came I’d be completely comfortable easing into a place where, for the most part, people didn’t talk, act, or think like me. Moving to St Andrews was exciting but also daunting. I’d never considered my class to be something that would ever be an issue to me until Freshers’ Week which, as I documented in my “review of my first year at St Andrews,” was a very solitary time for me. One thought that popped into my head on more than one occasion was the idea of “I don’t belong here.”
As I found out after roughly a month, this sob story was utter rubbish and St Andrews was far more welcoming than it first seemed. However, it doesn’t alter that this seemed to be the case from the off. Every year, anecdotal tales are told of terrified freshers heading towards prestigious unis to find themselves anxious at what awaits. While, in most cases, the anxiety soon fades, it shouldn’t be present in the first place. As such, we must look at ways in which universities can help ease the worries of their inbound freshers.
Firstly, St Andrews must consider the way it markets itself to students. I’ve highlighted that, once you get here, that sense of not-belonging melts away fairly quickly. Every anxiety, every moment of trepidation, every uncertainty, stems from the experience students will have before moving-in day.
For me, a glance over Cambridge and St Andrews’ prospectuses kicked up a recurring theme of “elite-ness.” While this is not necessarily a bad thing, what it unintentionally did was make it seem like I’d be “punching above my weight” by coming here. In saying this, the issue is not without remedy.
It’s not inherently bad that elite universities make the point that they are… well… elite. It is their unique selling point, after all. However, there is a way and a means to go about it. The first and foremost means should be to target advertising of positive experiences, like my own, at students who were once in my position. Fresh-faced newcomers, terrified of finding themselves being the only ones who haven’t learned five languages whilst teaching on their exuberant gap year, probably wouldn’t be so scared if they were shown that it’s a myth that everybody is like that.
As well as this, some introduction to the rigour of elite university work would be nothing short of a godsend. My only experience of coursework, having come from the English education system, was a GCSE Geography piece completed in Year 10, some three years prior to university. Despite this, I was placed squarely on my rear and expected to complete essay after essay right from the get-go. While I coped relatively well with this change, many others will have struggled more, and while such programmes of introductory work do exist, they are piecemeal at best and often only reach a small set of students.
Some form of collaborative effort between prestigious universities to boost these programs and give some form of foundation to disadvantaged students would be fantastic. These tiny changes in direction, I feel, would go a long way towards easing the anxieties of many of us taking the grand step of applying here.
Henry Lloyd Hughes: Cambridge
The name itself instantly brings a lot of stereotypes to mind. Posh. Rich. Dominated by privately educated students. Essentially, not the stereotypical environment for a Northern lad from a state comprehensive in Sheffield.
That’s why, when it was time for me to move to uni, not only was the car packed to the brim, but so was my head, emotionally weighed down by the baggage of these preconceptions. The anxieties that were attached to applying to this sort of institution were founded way before the drive down.
At my school, only a handful of students considered applying to the country’s top universities. I didn’t have a clue how to even get here, let alone know what to expect as a fresher. This, I believe, is the reason why students from more deprived state-school backgrounds are put off from applying; we don’t even know where to start.
The prospect of applying was exceptionally daunting. One of the worst parts is that as soon as you apply, everyone alienates you as “the one applying to Cambridge,” which was said with the undertone of “the one who thinks they’re good enough.” Of course, I never did, and being here, I still don’t. But what is true is that the only reason I applied was that one of my secondary school teachers assured me that I was capable. Without that, I would have never even considered it.
This is where these top universities need to intervene: right at the start of the application process, if not before. There desperately needs to be greater outreach schemes so that the voice of these universities can be heard in more deprived state schools – ones that don’t have dedicated admission advisors, applicant classes or preparatory workshops. It instead needs to be stressed, preferably by the unis themselves, that they can apply, that it is possible and that the entire system isn’t totally against them.
Cambridge both is, and isn’t, what I expected it to be. Fair enough, I have only been here for four weeks, and my expectations for the immense workload and top-class teaching have been met. But it is this notion of top-class teaching which has left me feeling somewhat at the bottom of the pile. I think coming from sixth form where all my classes had twenty plus students, this new style of academic independency is hugely different. I no longer have a sea of peers to hide behind.
What I think would help this transition is to just be eased in more gently. I feel as if I have been plunged into ice-cold water, still suffering from shock as every part of me tries to adjust to its new environment. What would help is if this shock wasn’t so drastic. Instead of dropping us in at the deep end, why not show us how to swim? By this I mean that I think it would be very beneficial if universities who are renowned for such academic ferocity formally recognise that not all students have had the same foundations. For institutions renowned for such great minds, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that someone acclimatised to larger classes is going to have a harder time adjusting to more intense and thoroughly individualised academic scrutiny.
Yet, in terms of the people I have met, everyone has been purely friendly and thoroughly down to earth. But this leads to another area I believe that these universities need to address in greater depth, which is just how different the social culture is. For example, I’ve had to buy a suit, something that I have little experience with, as well as having to meet the requirements of dress codes on invitations to evening drinks. Not to mention, it’s bloody expensive.
I have never experienced, and will never experience the same level of prestige that this University relentlessly exudes. I’m in a completely different world, miles away from anything remotely recognisable. I think universities could do more fundamentally by developing more accessible schemes to at least establish some sort of standardisation in educational foundations before we’re launched, full speed, into the all-consuming academic universe.