In 1973 I arrived at Cambridge University to begin a degree in History. For me this was a great achievement – both as a black woman and as someone from a working-class background. I was lucky in the sense that my parents had always instilled in me an understanding that if I worked hard I could achieve whatever I wanted. I was also lucky that my school were supportive of my desire to go to Cambridge.
In those days the number of black and ethnic minority students at Oxbridge universities was low, the number of black and ethnic minority female students was very low, and there were very few students from working-class backgrounds. Although access to a university education has improved since then (currently over 40% of under-30 year olds have been to university) there is still a serious lack of students from state schools and from ethnic minority backgrounds. There are many reasons for this lack. Part of the reason is that students from certain backgrounds are put off applying for Oxbridge universities because they think it is not for them. Both Oxford and Cambridge – and many of the other Russell Group universities – have a reputation for being elitist and exclusionary. Unfortunately many of the top jobs in this country and beyond go to graduates of these top universities. Degrees from here are well-respected and in an ever-growing competitive labour market top degrees are highly sought after. The lack of students from working-class and ethnic minority backgrounds in top universities therefore means a lack of this section of the population in top careers like law, medicine, business and of course politics.
I have campaigned for equality in education for many, many years now and feel strongly about the need for diversity in all sectors of higher education and in the labour market. So I was very pleased this month when I received a letter from local schoolgirl Rubina Amad with details of the scheme she is part of. Rubina is 16 years old and studying for her GCSEs at Skinner’s Company’s School for Girls. In 2006 Rubina was accepted onto the Sutton Trust Ambassador Scheme. She is now the official Oxford University Ambassador for her school.
The Sutton Trust works with universities to encourage children from schools that have not traditionally sent students to the UK’s top universities to do so. The Trust have found that there are a lot of talented youngsters who get the right grades for top universities but do not end up going. Sometimes their high grades are not predicted early enough to get them a place, they might not believe they can get into these universities, or that they will not fit in there. The University of Oxford programme was set up three years ago and allows students to attend summer schools, team-building trips, shadowing programmes and personal development sessions. The aim of the programme is to build confidence in these students with the hope that they will aspire to join the University, but also so that they can go back to their schools and encourage their peers to do the same.
Rubina tells me that she has greatly enjoyed being on the programme so far. She has been able to learn new skills and experience university life. The programme has helped Rubina to see the wide range of options that are open to her once she leaves school. But perhaps most importantly, Rubina has been able to tell her classmates and the rest of the school about life at university. She has held assemblies and written articles for her school newsletter explaining to her fellow students what going to university is about, and how they can go about getting there. She is doing vital work motivating her classmates to aim high in their education, whatever path that may take. And I am greatly looking forward to seeing a generation of top-class Hackney students roaming the corridors of the best universities in the coming years.
For more information about the University of Oxford Ambassador Scheme contact Tara Prayag at: firstname.lastname@example.org