It’s no secret that both Oxford and Cambridge have reputations for being two of the oldest, most prestigious universities in the world, but with that also comes the reputation that you have to be from a wealthy background to study there. Historically, that may be the case, but university is now considered accessible for everyone regardless of background - an opportunity for people to get an education which will lead them to a more comfortable future. Whilst there may no longer be physical barriers to Oxford or Cambridge, there are most definitely psychological barriers which hold people back from applying. Whether you’re considering applying to Oxford or have already received an offer and are being plagued with nerves and doubt about fitting in there, hopefully my experience can give you the honest insight you need.
I’d first like to point out that whilst I’m from a low income background, my experience comes from being a white female from London, and someone’s experience of Oxford will vary based on so many other factors than wealth (not necessarily for the worse), so use my experience just as an example or a rough guide of how a low income background affects the ‘Oxford experience’.
Even though I’d dreamed about Oxford since I was in primary school, I never considered it as a genuine possibility until the end of secondary school when teachers told me I had a chance of getting in. I was excited by the prospect of studying at such a renowned university, but it dawned on me at one point that I came from a background miles apart from the ‘typical’ Oxford student. My household income was in the lowest bracket possible, I went to a state school and neither of my parents had ever finished a degree. Would I fit in there? Would I be able to have the same experiences as everyone else? Would people look down on me for not having rich family or expensive belongings? These were all genuine fears I had before, during and even after the application process, up until the moment I arrived at college about to move in.
The point at which I decided I should apply despite my concerns was when a friend told me I needed to be the change I wanted to see. If I wanted to see more students from disadvantaged backgrounds at unis like Oxford, nothing would change until people like myself actually applied there. This definitely gave me a new perspective; suddenly, I wasn’t just fighting for my place at Oxford, but for the places of future generations of students who would see the demographics starting to change and would feel more confident to apply. Even though it was scary, I knew my friend was right; if nobody like me applied, then nobody like me would get in.
It’s all well and good trying to fight the system and inspire other students to apply somewhere, but the question still remains: would someone from a low income background actually enjoy a place like Oxford? My answer is yes. It may not be completely perfect, but there is no reason to have a worse experience than you would at other universities, and in my case, Oxford has given me more financial opportunities than I would have gotten at any of the other universities I applied to.
Oxford has a very generous bursary scheme based on household income. That is, they’ll give you money which you never have to pay back, and the lower your family income is, the more they’ll give you. If, like me, you’re in the very lowest household income bracket, they currently (2019) give students £3,700 a year and not only that, but these students automatically get a scholarship with a whole host of additional benefits. Scholars receive the standard £3,700 bursary, but they also get a £3000 reduction in tuition fees each year, meaning the amount of tuition fees you’ll have to pay back after you graduate will be far less than many other students. They also provide opportunities for internships exclusively to scholars, and can provide funding for these too of up to £2,500. Each college also has funds available to students for various things such as buying books or laptops, although this varies a lot from college to college, but there should always be a pot of money allocated for supporting students if they face financial hardship at any point.
Altogether, this makes university a much more comfortable experience, and means you not only don’t have to worry about being able to afford necessities, but also means you can afford to have more expensive experiences too, like going out with friends or attending events hosted by your college. From my experience, there are a lot of events at Oxford which can cost a crazy amount of money, from balls to trips abroad to memberships of various societies, but these are all optional, and you won’t have to miss out on all of them. Even the richest students won’t have the time to attend every event or join every society, so you won’t find yourself having to pass up many opportunities, and you’ll often find your friends are in the same/similar position to you. Many students rely on money from parents, which is a privilege in many ways but also means they don’t have the same autonomy as students receiving bursary payments who can choose how they spend their money without having to ask their parents for support.
Another thing about Oxford is that students are advised not to have jobs during term-time. For many students from a lower-income background this is a daunting prospect as that extra source of income would be really useful, but actually this means you’re not going to be falling behind on work compared to other students who don’t need to work and have more time to study, and you won’t be any worse off because of the bursary/financial hardship payments college provide. And if you are struggling, you can get a job during vacations, which are longer at Oxford than other universities (and longer holidays = more time to earn money!).
So yes, it is daunting going to somewhere like Oxford, and yes, you may at times feel a bit alienated from the students who went to private schools or come from a much wealthier background, but you definitely won’t be the only one in your situation. There’s still a long way to go before the demographics are even at Oxford, but things are improving, and there are several provisions in place to ensure every student has a comfortable, enjoyable experience, including dedicated staff/students who you can talk to if you ever feel isolated or daunted at any point. Don’t let your background hold you back from applying to Oxford, or any university for that matter, because you are as deserving as anybody else to come here.