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Why is going to Oxford being held against me?

13 March 2021

5:45 PM

13 March 2021

5:45 PM

Should going to Oxford be held against you? In my experience, some employers think it should. A month before the first lockdown of 2020, I attended an interview with a prestigious company in London. With nearly 1000 applicants for each place on their internship scheme, the stakes were high; making it to the interview may have been a success in itself, but now it was time to impress the recruiters in person.

After a frantic journey on the underground, I arrived at the interview location. Having spent the previous few days researching the interview process, I expected an hour of rigorous intellectual interrogation, followed by a brief case study assessment.

What I didn’t expect, however, was that in the first five minutes I would be told the odds were stacked against me. Despite my low-income background, my status as a student at Oxford meant my chances of success were diminished; the interviewers informed me they had quotas to fill, and to increase their social mobility credentials they had been urged to recruit students from ‘other’ universities.

This was a significant knock to my confidence. I had worked relentlessly to secure a place at Oxford, largely to improve my chances of success in life – and now I was being punished for it.

Before this episode, I had always assumed ‘positive discrimination’ would work in my favour. I was, after all, a woman looking to enter into a traditionally male-dominated sector. I was also a member of the Social Mobility Foundation, which aims to provide support for high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds. Despite possessing these characteristics, I still didn’t qualify as an individual who might improve the ‘diversity’ of the firm. How many more boxes did I have to tick?


Despite the illegality of positive discrimination following the Equality Act of 2010, ‘positive action’, remains entirely legal. And with corporate ‘wokeness’ increasing by the day, business giants are employing such recruitment strategies more than ever before.

This spells bad news for Oxford graduates. In October, the BBC’s director-general Tim Davie made the news when he suggested that the broadcasting company intends to cut back on its recruitment of Oxbridge alumni – despite being educated at Cambridge himself. Davie is not alone: just last month, I submitted an application before noticing the company’s job description read: ‘We don’t take Oxbridge graduates.’

Unfortunately, this has all come at the wrong time for people like me who tried so hard to get a place at Oxford. And by maintaining such anti-Oxbridge attitudes, employers are stifling social mobility efforts, and undermining Oxbridge’s continued efforts to improve accessibility.

Despite its bad press, this year Oxford accepted a record number of state school undergraduates; nearly 1,900 out of 2,800 Oxford freshers attended non fee-paying schools. It was a similar picture at Cambridge, where a record-high proportion of state school students arrived at the university last Autumn. Is it really fair that these students pay the price for going to two of Britain’s best universities?

Regardless of my misgivings, it’s possible, of course, that I have been a beneficiary of positive action myself. Winning a place to study at a traditionally public school-dominated Oxford college has always seemed to me an obvious case of positive action; a realisation which left me with the dreaded ‘imposter syndrome’.

Despite my enthusiasm for academia and my strong performance at school, I’ll never know whether I truly deserved a place at Oxford, or whether this success was partially due to my background. And when Oxford recently publicised its admissions data in a bid to quell criticism, I felt an even greater sense of unease; was I being used as a marketing tool?

When ‘positive action’ hasn’t been working against me as a student at Oxford, it has eroded my confidence, and encouraged me to believe I am little more than a statistic. Access initiatives continue to encourage their members to ‘flag’ their low-income background on application forms, rather than providing them with the skills and training they need to succeed in the working world.

But is this really the right approach? I’m starting to wonder whether I might end up regretting the hard work I put into winning a place at Oxford. The ‘opportunities’ it creates are rapidly diminishing.
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