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Oxbridge? Look Beyond the Headlines

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If you're bright, you should try and get into the best university you can, regardless of where you're from. It's a pretty obvious sentence, but it doesn't always happen.

I present a football show on TV. That doesn't qualify me to overhaul any entrenched inequalities that do exist in our education system.

But if one person, who wasn't going to try to get in to a top university because it just "wasn't for them", reads this and thinks about changing their mind and going for it, I'll be happy.

The phrase "I'm not applying there, because it's not for me" is just bull****. Apologies for the language.

Every year, you will see a story about a bright state school kid not getting into Oxford or Cambridge despite having straight As and being wonderful in every possible way. The article will then explain that Oxbridge, and other top universities are the preserve of the privileged in this country and that no-one else gets a look in.

It will probably have a picture of some posh people in funny outfits and then a list of posh people who went there and now are important, like the prime minister, a judge, and probably Stephen Fry.

It's an easy headline, and it's an easy way to take a pop at whichever government are in power. If it's the Conservatives, it shows how posh they all are, and if it's Labour it shows how they're not doing enough to help poor (normal) people. However, it overlooks completely the fact that there are a large number of state school kids who go to the best universities, have a brilliant time, and use it as a real spring board for life.

Now there are some depressing statistics, particularly about Oxbridge, but the entire way it is portrayed in the media helps turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy - that means people who have no idea whether they'd enjoy studying there just think, "maybe it isn't for me".

Yes, just under 10% of oxbridge undergraduates come from families with an annual income of less than £16,290, the level for free school meals. But interestingly, according to the students themselves, it's less money that stops people applying, and more just a vibe that it won't suit them.

The Social Mobility Foundation is a charity set up precisely to help disadvantaged kids get to the best universities. According to it's research, just 14% of the students they help highlighted financial reasons stopping them from applying, as opposed to 48% saying "it's not for them".

I have met so many people who've said that - and I've always found it deeply frustrating. I went to Oxford, and I loved it. And compared to my mates who went to other Universities - apart from the odd weird tradition where you have to stick a funny hat on, and some pretty buildings - there's no real difference.

You don't work as hard as you should at the start, you try (and normally fail) to chat up women or vice versa, you drink too much, you play a lot of football, then in the run up to your finals you panic, work damn hard and get a 2:1 at the end. That is the university experience for most people. Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Loughborough, wherever...

I currently mentor students from local schools where I live, for a charity called the Access Project. My job is to teach History (my degree) A-level one-to-one to help each student get the best possible grade as possible, and to help them get into the best University they can.

And while most of the time, I'm trying to help them structure an essay on Hoover's economic policy in the 20s, we spend time talking about university, about what it's like, where to apply, what to study etc (as well as trying to stop my current student from wanting to discuss the problems with Arsenal's defence!). My previous student got into Oxford, and the guy I'm teaching now is planning on going to Edinburgh, Leeds or Birmingham - all great universities.

It's not my place to pry into their family backgrounds, but if they don't have people at home who can tell them what university is like - hopefully I can help. (I'll stick the website for the Access Project at the bottom of this, if you want more info).

Like many of us, I was always going to university. It was as obvious as going to school. The only question was which one. I grew up in Cambridge. My Dad taught at the university. The whole idea of it was so natural to me, there wasn't another option.

But if you don't grow up in that environment, and your only view of universities comes from misguided articles telling you how posh all the people are there and how much you'll hate them, then we're not going to change the cycle. Ironically, many of those articles are written by top graduates, who know what university is really life - sadly what it's really like isn't interesting enough to sell papers.

In addition there has been so much mis-information about tuition fees, meaning people not even realising that they don't have to pay them back until they're earning a certain amount of money. And sure it's worrying to be saddled with any debt, before you really start in life, but it's a bigger concern that kids won't go to University because they don't know the facts.

In my final year at Oxford, I lived in a house of six blokes. Me, two Etonians, one from a state school in Watford, one from a Comprehensive in Newcastle and one from a private school on the Isle of Wight. All very different people, with very different backgrounds. But we all got on - and 11 years later are going out for some dinner tonight. We're all doing pretty well - largely I'm sure, down to our university education. You don't have to be a genius to get into Oxford - but some people think you might be, and that can help.

Clearly not everyone should go to university. And there's nothing wrong with not going. But if you're smart enough, and motivated enough, it's a great thing to do, and it prepares you in life in ways you don't really realise until a lot later. I think my uni mates and I are only just working that out now.

And as for the phrase, "oh it's not for me" - well I can understand someone saying that about bungee jumping, or eating raw fish, but discarding something that could potentially change your life without actually knowing about it? You can't know it's not for you, until you try it. End of lesson! Hope it wasn't too preachy.

For more information on the Access Project go to www.theaccessproject.org.uk

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