Katrina Hughes: Oxbridge students are just like you and me

Oxford University graduates at the Sheldonian Theatre. Picture: PA
Oxford University graduates at the Sheldonian Theatre. Picture: PA
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SCOTTISH applicants to Oxford and Cambridge may be rare because they are rarely encouraged, says Katrina Hughes

In 2010, I completed my secondary education in my local, state-funded, Scottish school. I am now entering my third and final year at Oxford University, working towards a degree in philosophy, politics and economics this coming June. In the 21st century, after so much effort has been expended to open up educational opportunity to students from all backgrounds, these two sentences taken together should hardly raise an eyebrow.

But in Scotland they do. According to some, Oxford and Cambridge – “Oxbridge” – are elitist institutions, populated by “Hooray Henrys”, and beyond the financial and social reach of anyone whose upbringing has not been steeped in privilege.

With my background, am I really an exception to the norm? Is my story remarkable or can my journey be travelled by anyone who has the will and determination to apply for one of the world’s elite universities?

Statistically, I suppose I am somewhat unusual. Not in light of my state comprehensive education or my socioeconomic background, but because of my place of birth. Oxbridge is not very Scottish.

In the UK, there are roughly ten English citizens for every one Scot. Yet in 2012, 11,180 students from England applied to Oxford – compared with just 284 Scots. The statistics are only slightly less disappointing for Cambridge – in 2011, 378 Scottish students applied, compared with 2,302 from London alone, and 8,961 from England as a whole. In other words, for every one Scottish applicant to Oxbridge, there are more than 30 English applicants.

Why is the proportion of Scottish applicants so low? Oxford and Cambridge should be for anyone who is capable and wants to apply – including students from Scotland.

Applying is, of course, a matter of personal preference. As university experiences go, Oxford and Cambridge are unique. At both you feel that you and your education matter. Each student is an individual; not one of 400 in a lecture room, but one of two or three in a tutorial. You are taught by the foremost experts in every field, ready to answer any and every question. You have access to the biggest libraries in the world, and resources that no other place of study in Britain can offer.

I’m not going to lie: it is hard work. You learn to meet multiple deadlines under seemingly impossible time constraints. This can be intense. What they tell you is that operating at this intensity will make you attractive to employers. This is true. You learn to cope – even thrive – under stress, and this engenders a certain confidence. But here is what they don’t tell you, or what they tell you and you don’t believe – it is also a lot of fun.

There is no one kind of person at Oxford or Cambridge: some people are from independent schools, some are not; some people are from London, some are not; some people like to party, some do not. Forget the old Oxbridge stereotypes often perpetuated in the media: Oxbridge students are just like you and me.

In Scotland, both institutions have made a concerted effort to rectify the problem of recruitment. Both offer conferences for teachers to make the application process clearer and more accessible, and Oxford offers some of the most generous funding available to Scottish students, despite having no legal obligation to do so.

So, could it be that the problem actually lies within Scotland? Perhaps Oxbridge applications are rare because they are so rarely encouraged. Schools, especially state-funded schools, have a reluctance to embark on what to some is such an unfamiliar road. One fellow Scottish student at Oxford told me that her school had not only failed to be supportive, but had “actively discouraged” her from applying.

I’ve offered to visit schools and talk to students about Oxford as part of an outreach programme (one of the many that run throughout the two universities), only to have schools reject such proposals. For schools, Oxbridge means more work. It means providing Advanced Higher classes. It’s disappointing that in 2011, fewer than half of the students who achieved the qualifications required by Oxford or Cambridge applied to either university. And this low number fails to take into consideration the many schools unable to 
run the necessary Advanced Higher courses.

So what if you are a student thinking of applying? For you, it means undertaking student debt – free tuition fees in Scotland create a barrier few other nationalities face. But more importantly, in light of the financial support readily available, it means thinking you are good enough. It means taking on the unknown, moving beyond your comfort zone. To apply to Oxbridge means we have to challenge ourselves, necessarily opening ourselves up to rejection, and why would we want to do that?

Because it – and you – are worth it in the end. Applying to Oxbridge is a learning experience, a great one. Even if I hadn’t got in, I would tell others to apply. If you have the grades, you are good enough – no matter what you, or anyone else might think. You just have to believe in yourself enough to apply. You might not get an interview: so what? You might get an interview and no letter of acceptance: who cares? You had the experience of an interview and will be better for it. But if you’re really lucky, you might just get an offer. You might just find yourself heading to Oxford or Cambridge next October. And you just might love it as much as I do.

• Katrina Hughes was a pupil at Lanark Grammar School and is studying politics, philosophy 
and economics at University College, Oxford.

The deadline for applications to Oxford and Cambridge is Monday 15 October.