The Oxbridge Image

14/09/2012 00:48 BST | Updated 13/11/2012 10:12 GMT

There seem to be biannual spikes of interest in Oxbridge: one in September, when journalists start to think about those applying and give out advice about how to get in; and one in January, when we get the slew of stories about those highly qualified students who missed out on a place. This is punctuated at random intervals by particularly relevant news, such as when students perform 'inappropriately' or when it appears on the political agenda. In all of these stories, there still seems to be the long-perpetuated idea of Oxbridge as a mythical place, a closed society becoming increasingly difficult to break into or understand.

The Oxbridge image is about as old as the universities themselves. After Googling 'image of Oxbridge', images of suited applicants and students appear, followed by a range of articles, three of which include the word 'toff', with others focusing on 'elitism' and 'negativity'. People view the universities as increasingly detached from society, with their own rules, norms and customs.

At 18, I was one of those people. Following my Oxford interview, I was adamant that, even if I got an offer, I would turn it down. Being from a state school which had never sent anyone to Oxbridge, the first in my family to apply to university, living in the North of England on a one-parent income, I was sure that it was not going to be my thing.

But when the offer came I couldn't do it - I couldn't turn my back on the work I had put into getting that place, and the opportunity that Oxford offered. And when I got there, I found that I did fit in - to the real Oxford, not to the caricature of Oxford the media often portrays. On top of this, I came out of it at the other end pretty unchanged - albeit after a term of adopting a horribly bad Queen's English accent before being laughed back out of the North.

According to the stereotype, very few of my friends "should" be at Oxford: at least two of us were on the full Oxford Opportunities Bursary, designed to help students from low income backgrounds; the majority of us were from state schools which didn't routinely send students to Oxbridge; and were predominantly made up of that "squeezed middle" we keep hearing about.

The issue of access is a complex thing. In my year of application, only 2% of successful applicants came from the north-east of England, my then-local area. A year later, it was 3.%, and in 2010, the most recent figures published by the university, the figure is 1.9%. Other areas of the UK are similarly low, notably Wales and Northern Ireland, with London and the South East dominating the table. I'm not going to pretend that Oxford and Cambridge don't have work to do in terms of access, but they are making the effort, and this will improve with time. Both universities allocate each individual college an area of the UK, and aims to raise aspirations in this area, there are plenty of online resources at both universities and both have very strong bursary schemes for poorer students.

Much also lies with schools. A lot relies on chance, with regional differences, stretched school resources, and the type of school itself all affecting the school's ability to prepare students for Oxbridge. I was pushed to apply for Oxbridge, by chance, by an amazing history teacher. Would I have even thought to apply without this? Probably not.

Furthermore, the image of Oxbridge would have directly influenced my decision not to apply - and how many other potential students are being affected by this image? The image of Oxbridge as 'abnormal' only serves to dissuade the 'normal' from making applications. Perpetuating the image of Oxbridge as unattainable and alien harms everyone: it reduces the efforts of those who have worked so hard to get there, and it only continues to discourage those who should be applying.

Hard work, dedication and passion are reasons why people get into, and then succeed at, Oxbridge. This is sometimes dependent on background and schooling, but more often than not it is down to each individual student putting in the effort and savouring their learning.