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Are students from working-class backgrounds let down when they get to Oxford?

Although I have already had many positive experiences in my first year studying German at Oxford, I have noticed a disparity between college outreach and college welfare, for which I was unprepared.

When deciding which college to apply to, I picked Exeter because of its small size, hoping that there would be other people ‘like me’ and I wouldn’t feel like an outsider. Although this seems a strange way to make such an important decision, I didn’t know how else to choose a college, and one of my biggest concerns was that I wouldn’t fit in because of my background. The admissions officers and staff at Exeter were extremely supportive and communicative throughout the application process and this reaffirmed my hope that college welfare would be similar.

The financial support I receive as part of the ‘Crankstart Scholarship’ means that I don’t have to worry about managing both my workload and financial difficulties. In this sense, the support provided by Oxford (and at my college, for example through subsidised ball tickets) has reached and exceeded my expectations, which is a huge relief. Aside from finances, however, the most memorable and personal welfare events are student- led.

One great aspect of welfare last term was a £5 ‘class dinner’ organised by Exeter Class Act: all the formalities of formal hall were pushed aside, and students affected by class were able to enjoy a cheap, three- course meal in a relaxed setting. Despite not attending regular formals, the atmosphere at this one felt comfortable and easy and I hope that this event will continue into the future.

Bridging programmes (such as Exeter Plus at my college) are still relatively new and developing, but I believe that if they are given their deserved attention, welfare for working-class students could improve rapidly. Despite the important aspects of Exeter Plus in preparing students for college life, I think that colleges need to make a concerted effort to acknowledge the value of ‘student led’ activities which support current students and encourage prospective students to apply.

The traditions and customs at Oxford came as a shock to me, specifically as they are totally familiar to some people but completely alien to others: a lot of the time, it’s easy to discern who falls into which ‘group’. I’m reluctant to talk about students in terms of groups and divisions, as class backgrounds should not define the way people are perceived, but my experiences are also important in defining me, and I believe that the class divide at Oxford reflects the wider class divide that is so distinct in British society. It is a reality that working-class students are denied the same opportunities that their more privileged peers have access to, for example in terms of networking and connections, due to inequalities in vastly different educational experiences. I feel that this reality has not been fully addressed and and that there is an attitude that students are starting on an even playing field, since we’ve all been accepted.

Ultimately, I am beginning to find my place at college and in the wider community: I enjoy my course, my tutors are great, and I’ve realised that most people are very accepting and friendly. In my experience, however, lots of people from similar backgrounds have gravitated towards each other and I notice myself doing the same. The problem may lie in the way that colleges rely on student bodies to provide important welfare, whether it be ‘welfare tea’ and JCR meetings, or class dinners and socials. Without these activities, there would be no form of college-based welfare for working-class students.

I understand the enjoyment behind Oxford traditions such as formal dinners, academic gowns, and unique social events – these are embedded in the way of life here and have been for hundreds of years, which makes it special to be a part of. However, I feel these traditions mean that Oxford may never be as inclusive or diverse as other universities, and the general perception of Oxford as an elite and exclusive institution is understandable, despite increasing efforts to widen accessibility.