education

What Actually Happens When a Working-Class Student Applies to Oxbridge

In this extract from "Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain's Youth", Olivia Fletcher shares how applying to Cambridge University shattered her fantasy of meritocratic education.

by Olivia Fletcher
18 July 2019, 1:05pm

Students graduating at Cambridge University. Photo by Julian Eales / Alamy Stock Photo

Between the evaporating job prospects and skyrocketing uni fees, being a young person in the UK is harder than ever. But you're more likely to see us maligned as lazy, entitled snowflakes in the press than hear our actual voices.

Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones, wants to change all that with raw insight into what it means to be young and British.

In this excerpt originally titled University Ain't For the Likes of Us, writer Olivia Fletcher shares how her desperation to get out of her working-class town led her to applying to Cambridge University. You can read another extract from the anthology here.

I reached a point where I was begging someone, anyone, to please just get me out of the shithole I grew up in. I couldn’t do it anymore.

There wasn’t a specific event. It was just a build-up of many things. Where I’m from is a place where parents – and even, in some cases, grandparents – went to the same school as their children. Only just over half of my year group got a GCSE in English or maths. The father of one of my best friends was born in one house, lived in the house next to it and is now raising his family in the one adjacent to that. We’re sort of like the people of Maycomb County described by Harper Lee – poor, socially immobile and unaware of what lies beyond the town’s borders. We all know, for instance, about the bus fire outside Shoe Zone, and about the homeless woman who wears her mother’s clothes but refuses to accept housing offers. These, like many others, have become folk stories – the sort of tales that get passed through generations. It seems like everyone knows the next person, and even if you don’t, there’s an unspoken affinity between you and them.

For me and my friends, the metanarrative we were raised on by our parents, and sometimes even teachers, was: A) leave secondary school with the bog-standard five A*–C grade GCSEs, B) get a job, one that you’ll keep for life, and C) do as you’re bloody well told. This message was probably similar to the one the teachers themselves received when growing up, but fortunately for them, they were entering a more stable job market. Today, young people – that’s those of us between 16 and 24 – are three times more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population. Our parents and teachers, too, could leave school as soon as they were 16, which today is not the case in England. You either go into further study of some sort, or an apprenticeship.

Rife author Olivia Fletcher
Olivia Fletcher. Photo courtesy of PR

My mum and stepdad were adamant that I leave school at 16 and get a finance or office-based apprenticeship, like in a local travel or housing agency, because it would guarantee me a living and set me up with a career. It was what they had done, and what most of my other family members had done too. In 1989, the year before my mum would have applied to university, the poll tax was introduced and students had to pay this while studying.

This in itself would have deterred working-class students from further education, but even more so for people like my mum, who had the option to go straight into work instead. She didn’t enjoy studying much anyway, and had been educated at a comprehensive school where there was no particular emphasis on university unless A) you could afford it, or B) you had parents who had been, and could give you guidance. Neither A nor B applied to my mum. Doing the same should have been an unquestionable choice for me. Although I couldn’t go straight into work, I could do an apprenticeship, which was the next closest thing. University was never the obvious option. I lived in a low-participation area, had no immediate family who had been and it was rarely, if ever, promoted at my secondary school. But at the same time, whilst applying for an apprenticeship in something office-based would have been the most straightforward option, it wasn’t what I wanted.

I still didn’t know what I wanted to do – "Just marry rich," one of my friends joked – but I knew one thing for certain: I didn’t want to stay in my hometown in a career that I didn’t actually want. A top university was a ticket out of this place. It was a chance to meet different people, live independently and increase my employment prospects in jobs that I previously couldn’t have dreamed of.

As we sat on the AstroTurf during lunch watching boys play football, my friend joked, "Why not Cambridge?"

I laughed, because I knew it was as unrealistic as marrying rich. Going to university was considerably uncommon for students at my school. Going to Cambridge, or marrying rich for that matter, was even rarer. At this point, I hadn’t given much thought to what I’d do post-GCSEs. I had only just started considering going to university, but Cambridge University had never entered this thought process.

I was shit at maths, which ruled out an accounting-based apprenticeship. I wasn’t a diligent or pragmatic person, so I couldn’t go into business either. Being a girl meant that childcare, hair and beauty, or air hostessing would have been the next most likely prospects. If it wasn’t finance, or one of the above careers, it would have been something construction- or joinery-based, where only 2 per cent of apprentices were female. I knew that these were equally legitimate and honourable career paths, but they were ones that I was neither interested nor welcome in.

Even more importantly, I assumed I’d stay in the same occupation for life with an unchanging salary and a high-rising glass ceiling, which was something that terrified me. So, like a dork on Dragons’ Den, I began reciting what I was going to tell my mum about my alternative plan.

I could see that the door to the front room was ajar. It was late evening, about half nine, and through the gap in the door I could see that the coffee table had been moved from the corner of the room to the middle. The sizzle of the steaks being grilled and the smell of thick-cut chips being deep fried in a pan of oil from the kitchen meant that they were soon to be serving up. I knew that interrupting their dinner time was a stupid thing to do; it usually ended with me being shouted at. They had both had a busy day at work, and this was the only time they got to relax. But I didn’t want to leave my proposal tossing about in my head like a game of pinball any longer. Besides, I reassured myself, it would only take a minute.

I took a breath and stepped into the room. "I implore you to let me study A levels. There is nothing else I can offer to this society besides my devoted hours of studying, my thirst for knowledge and my inquisitive mind. I apologise for my lack of practical skill, but I would be of no use in the workforce. Now, if you would be so kind as to listen, I’ve got a proposal that you can’t refuse.

"I want to go to university, and in order to do so, I need A levels. Yes, before you ask, I know that only 20.8 per cent of undergraduate students at Russell Group universities are from working-class backgrounds, but with a degree, people are more likely to hire me in a job that I enjoy. And that, Dragons, is why I would like you to invest."

Actually, I can’t remember exactly what I said, but with a dry throat devoid of grammatical coherency, it probably wasn’t that. Whatever I said, it lolloped haphazardly from my tongue, like when Boris Johnson tries to talk about racial equality policy, or when Piers Morgan blunders his lines discussing women’s rights. Listening to me confessing my desire to study A levels and go on to university, my mum laughed.

"Nobody enjoys their jobs," she said.

"You might as well get a job now like we did, and save the nine grand it takes to realise this," my stepdad added.

To go to university – especially a research-intensive Russell Group one – would be subversive. It would be a deliberate infringement of the values that had been instilled in me by my mum and stepdad. Their reluctance to see beyond the cost, and their own experiences of being deterred from university, had distorted their vision. If university was made more financially accessible for me, and had been more of a legitimate option for my parents growing up, then perhaps they would have been more eager. The institutional barriers that they faced were deeply linked to their rejection of higher education. It disparaged them, so they dismissed it in return. I was allowed to study towards A levels, but in doing so, I was flouting what it meant to be part of my family. University would mean leaving home, rejecting not only my responsibilities but also plenty of respectable apprenticeships. I was being selfish.

During my A levels I was always divided between my aspirations and my roots. I was going to college every weekday until four, and tried to study for at least the recommended additional four hours per night. Yet at the same time, I had a part-time job as well as family commitments that needed to be met. Often, I’d study into the early hours of the morning to meet all of these obligations. I constantly felt guilty.

Why should I apologise for wanting to go to university?

Why should I – a working-class alumnus of a closed-down comprehensive school living in an economically depressed, low participation area – be less deserving of an education because I’m poor?

The answer is simple: I shouldn’t.

And it was with that conviction that I decided to apply to Britain’s – heck, the world’s – most prestigious university, Cambridge, because ha, suckers! Me? Bound by class barriers and tied to social structures? Think again, losers. I’m fucking invincible!

That’s right. If I could make it down my local high street without being wolf-whistled at by a 60-something-year old man or passing by another closed shopfront, then I could make it anywhere.

I’d like to think it was the sort of experiences described above that gave me the self-assurance to be able to apply. In actuality, though, I was just angry about being sentenced for life in the prison of social immobility, and wanted to prove to a lot of people – my family, friends, teachers and anyone else who was interested enough to care – that anyone, regardless of background, had a fair shot. If I had the opportunity to apply to Cambridge University, then I should seize it. I was scraping the same grades that other candidates were acing, but a place there would surely bail me out of my life sentence.

In the library of my sixth-form college, I had found a leaflet strewn across a table. It said something that made the idea of applying sound colloquial and welcoming, like, "Is Oxbridge the place for you?" or "Want to make Oxbridge a reality?"

I opened up the leaflet in a Charlie Bucket-esque manner, hoping that I’d find my golden ticket – my "get out of jail free" card – to see if Oxbridge was indeed the place for me, or if I wanted to make it my reality. So, I went for it. It was going to be easy. Simply apply, go to the interview, get the offer and then get the grades. Either they were trying to save printer ink, or just forgot to mention, for instance, that the average offer of a place requires three A-level grades at A*AA; that preparing for and sitting an admission assessment was now an entry requirement on all courses, and that you would have to pay for your own travel. I couldn’t help but think that if my family was richer, or I was allowed to concentrate entirely on my studies, this would be less of a concern to me.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but around the same time, I had been on abundant widening participation schemes that inflated me with the idea that access to higher education was entirely meritocratic. On the schemes, I’d be serenaded with PowerPoints by current students from a similar background explaining how great university is, given workshops on student finance and be invited on a day trip to a university in London.

More importantly, on these schemes, the coordinators of various Russell Group universities promised you an offer on the course you wanted – you just had to meet the grades in order to gain a place. It was, I suppose, a gesture that emphasised that, regardless of educational or parental background, a place at a research-intensive university was a real possibility. Cambridge didn’t take part, but I thought that was because they were playing hard to get. They were flirting with me. I didn’t want them, I thought. They needed me. They can’t tick the ‘working class’ box to fill their quota if I’m not there.

And so on 6 December, I attended my interview at Cambridge, infatuated with the belief that I had just as much potential here as Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, who got in despite having a C and two Ds in his A levels. To some extent, I thought that my lack of royal blood gave me edge: being working class at Cambridge was cool.

My regional accent and NHS glasses became my asset. Usually, these attributes made me common, but here they were somehow deviant from the norm. The gates of the college had just opened to the applicants and I could see all these smartly dressed, erudite-looking people making their way to the porter’s lodge to collect room keys. I was sat on a bench, observing from across the street before making my own way through the gates, when a black taxi hummed past. As it drove away, a man sat in the back rolled down the tinted window and cried, "Cambridge tossers!" A few people furtively ignored him, while some responded cordially with laddish chants of, "WAHEY." I laughed because, even in spite of my fellow applicants, it was me who looked and felt like the biggest tosser there.

I swaggered through the gates like I was in a 90s Britpop video. I was a Bristolian Liam Gallagher. His tambourine was my suitcase of books, and the other candidates arriving alongside me were Liam’s estranged brother: ultimately more intelligent than me, and better at mingling with the elite.

It was at this point that my worst suspicions, the ones I had strived so hard to ignore, were confirmed. Most of the other Oxbridge applicants I had met had been educated in something other than a comprehensive school. Even though on paper the university had a higher intake of ‘maintained’ school students than ‘independent’ school students, what this actually meant was questionable. This, it seems, is the case for most Russell Group universities.

During the application process, I looked at other universities too. Even at other research-intensive ones, the talk was always of Oxbridge. Like me, many prospective Russell Group students were also Oxbridge applicants. At a UCL open day, I had planned to visit one of the lecture blocks to hear a presentation about my chosen subject. When I arrived at the building, I was pointed to a lift. Two other prospective students – I could tell from the numerous pamphlets and freebies they were clutching – were waiting for the lift too, in mid-conversation. They were talking about Cambridge.

"If I got an offer from there, I’d put that as my firm, and probably here as my insurance," one contemplated idly.

"Oh, so what college are you going to apply for?" the other asked, stepping into the lift.

I followed after, and couldn’t help but ask, "Are you guys talking about Cambridge?"

They said that they were, and we chatted about this on the way to the lecture room, not caring that we were late. It was because of this that I was taken aback when one asked, "So, what schools are you guys from?"

This sounded pretty dumb, I thought. How would they know what school I went to when there are thousands across the country? The other replied with some polysyllabic noun, which I was unfamiliar with and immediately alienated by. When I got home I looked it up. It was an independent boarding school, founded in the 17th century, with fees starting from £31,000 per annum.

"Oh, I go to a small Catholic college in Bristol," I lied. My sixth form has 2,000 students, only a handful of whom are actually Catholics.

‘Maintained’ refers ambiguously to any school with state influence, which could therefore be any number of institutions: comprehensives, academies, free schools, grammar schools, or faith schools, for instance. Although said schools are theoretically non-selective, that does not mean that certain schools will not attract a certain type of pupil.

At Bristol Free School, only 8.8 per cent of its students are eligible for free school meals, as opposed to 22.5 per cent of pupils across the city on average. Similarly, the Sutton Trust – a charity interested in improving social mobility – found that in 2016 less than 3 per cent of pupils at grammar schools were entitled to free school meals. These schools are inherently middle class: they’re more likely to be in economically affluent areas, and tend to rely on the parents’ knowledge of how the education system works. Even though, therefore, less than half of the pupils at Cambridge have been privately educated, it does not mean that those who have come from the state sector are always disadvantaged in comparison.

When applying, I didn’t know or care much about what a maintained school was, because I didn’t want to play by the statistics. I wanted to, as the Cambridge website says, be judged on academic merit alone. "Ultimately," it claims, "all admissions decisions are based on academic criteria – ability and potential – and excellence in an extracurricular activity will never 'compensate' for lower academic potential" – which I thought was entirely fair. To me, this was not an interview. This was an opportunity to discuss a subject that I loved and had read as much about as I could in the time I had, with arguably some of the best academics in the field.

This wasn’t about who I was. This wasn’t about how I’d grown up surrounded not just by financial poverty but the poverty of ambition that attends it. This wasn’t about my life at a failing school, or the ways I had coped with that. No. This was who I was going to be. My books were my holy scripture. I had studied the text well. I was ready to convert.

I waited for my interview on the top floor of a Georgian building, where I had a panoramic view of the gardens below. It looked serene. It was the iconic image of Cambridge University – the photo you see on all of the postcards littered about the tourist shops on every cobblestone street. Below, people were stopping to take photos from beneath the chapel’s immense shadow, cast by the morning light. Even though it was December, the sun had risen, and it sat just above the horizon, nourishing the mown lawn and the flower beds with its rays. A thin layer of residue from yesterday’s frost rested, crystalised, on the grass and reflected fragmented parts of the chapel’s medieval windows. My presence in the picture felt wrong. I was an artist’s mistake, in need of being blotted out by a different shade of paint.

My Britpop confidence was becoming more Radiohead by the minute. I had never actually had an in-depth discussion with anyone before about the subject I was applying for. Some of the candidates had been preparing for this since, let’s face it, they were conceived. They had been prepped and given all the cultural capital they needed to be able to speak at length and with ease to important people. Some could afford to take part in Oxbridge preparation days, or attend mock interviews and assessments. Others, from the vague ‘maintained schools’ category, were, as discussed, closet posh people anyway.

In the weeks prior to my interview, I had not been nervous. But in spite of the cream-coloured ceiling, the walls lined with books, the wide-panelled windows that lit the room with soothing winter light and the cushioned armchair I had sunk into, I suddenly felt all the nerves I needed to compensate for the weeks that I hadn’t.

"I don’t agree with you. Why do you think that?" was asked a lot. My voice box – like when I had asked for my mum’s permission to apply in the first place – swelled up. Almost every response I had from my interviewer was fronted with a challenging "hmmmm" or a "no". Whatever I said could have been contradicted. I knew this was a part of academia, and I was trying to fight my corner, but I was unfamiliar with this kind of interaction. I’d had a practice interview with a teacher, and I had been to an Oxbridge conference with my college, and this filled me with confidence. Even so, I’d had much less practice than other applicants.

Usually, if I had been told "no" by a parent or a teacher, it meant no. End of discussion. I knew now what my mum had meant when she discouraged me from taking my A levels and applying to university. Although the application may truly be based on academic achievement alone, it’s undeniable that you’re more likely to be a high achiever if you’ve been given the cultural and economic capital to be so from your parents, and the universities themselves are more accommodating to those who have that. I had made it here, but it didn’t mean that I had as much of a chance to succeed as other applicants did.

Wanting a first-class education shouldn’t be based on having the economic capital to do so, having a quiet place to study for as long as you please, or how eloquently you’ve been taught to communicate. But it is.

The intimidation and exclusion I experienced – even if not overtly – is not uncommon. There is a reason why young people from low-income families tend to get lower grades, and it’s not because they were born academically low-achievers. It was because they were born poor. And being born poor comes with a whole bunch of strings attached. You learn to internalise your fate until you see no monetarily successful future. You seek instant gratification instead of planning for long-term rewards, so going to a university like Cambridge becomes an impossibility. If you ever got anywhere near to completing an application, you’d be an imposter, and somehow less deserving of a place.

Young people in Britain today are swindled by the claim that society is meritocratic. If it was, then more working-class students would be at university, and fewer middle-class students would feel the need to go. If it was, then Oxbridge would be genuinely accessible to poorer students, rather than simply appearing to promote widening participation. There would be less stigma surrounding who went, and who didn’t. University would simply be an institution for learning, regardless of who the learner might be. If society was meritocratic then a quarter of our doctors wouldn’t have been privately educated, 71 per cent of our senior judges would not have attended independent schools, and nineteen of our prime ministers wouldn’t have gone to the same school, Eton. Until Oxbridge becomes more open to and inclusive of all young people, the social class division in these two institutions will remain.

University isn’t what everyone wants, but working-class youth shouldn’t be deterred before even considering it. Ideally, any teen finishing school should have the right to make this decision, regardless of class barriers. In reality, however, the risks of going to university are higher than the benefits. We are given compensatory education – such as the numerous widening participation schemes I had attended – but they are mere tokenism and not available in all schools. And although they fix surface problems, like lowering grade offers, they do not tackle the structural causes that prevent many working-class teens from entering higher education. Most of the university representatives in the schemes I attended seemed like they had been hired to pitch to some poor kids about how good their university was, and why we should choose it, just so we’d fulfil their ‘working-class’ quota. I, and many other students I spoke to, felt patronised by numerous instances of being shown – literally in step-by-step guides – about why eating breakfast is important, and why mind-maps get you good grades, for example.

Instead of compensating for educational deprivation, why not seek to remove the inequality that causes it? We should be asking why the social classes are still so divided in education. We should be seeking to challenge and deconstruct these rigid social barriers, rather than merely reforming them. It will take time, effort and investment, and will not happen overnight, but its long-term effects will mean that social mobility becomes legitimate, and not just for a few who ‘made it’ in spite of their family background.

When I received my invitation to the Cambridge interview, I searched online for a coach ticket, only to find that it would cost me about 50 quid – 50 quid that I didn’t have. I emailed the admissions office asking if there was any bursary available. I had the evidence and teachers’ notes at hand, but the reply was no. Already, I was being pushed out of the application process because I couldn’t afford travel expenses.

It is this kind of thing that deters poorer students from applying. It is these kinds of things that made me wish I had listened to my mum when she said that university wasn’t for the likes of us. It is because of my social background that I was unlikely to get an offer from Cambridge anyway.

My secondary school, a comprehensive, was closed down in 2016, the year after I had completed my GCSEs. My year group was the collateral damage – the afterthought of a financial crisis in which our school was either to be reinvested in as a comprehensive, turned into an academy or closed down entirely. After increasing pressure to convert all comprehensives into academies, my school wasn’t deemed worth the money it would cost to fund. I, along with a hundred other pupils, was not worth saving.

At a time when qualifications have become increasingly crucial in a competitive job market, we were shut down. As I mentioned previously, just over half of the students in my year got 5 A*-C, including English and maths. We were put on death row. Our teachers’ jobs became unstable, so dozens of them left. The funding was slashed, and we lacked resources. There was no paper in the libraries. Half of our canteen became the art department. If we wanted to apply to sixth form, it was our own responsibility – assuming that our parents couldn’t help – but by this point most students had felt so disparaged by and disengaged with the system they were in that they wanted to opt out of studying as soon as they could.

I just know – I have a burning, unremitting feeling – that if our school had been given the funding it needed, it wouldn’t have turned into the pile of dying embers it became. If visiting and talking to parents – ones like mine and my friends’ – to help them understand what options were available to their children and that university wasn’t necessarily bad, or offering regular career services and advice sessions, or paying for university lecturers to come and speak to us, or giving every individual student a support programme is what it would have taken, then it should have been done. I can only speak on behalf of my school, but I suppose that the same ought to be done in other comprehensive schools on the verge of being closed.

Working-class children in Britain are being failed. I do not blame my fellow classmates for not being the right kind of achievers. I do not blame my parents for the institutional barriers that affected their own entry to higher education – I thank my mum for putting up with me. I blame the system in which the restrictions to achieve were imposed. We did not fail, but we were failed by an education system that refused to acknowledge the struggle of working-class students, so ignored us instead. They might as well have left us in the rubble when they knocked down the school.

Once upon a time, class divisions may have been unquestioned. The working class belonged here, and the middle class belonged there. But today, when British youth are promised something more than this – when we are told that anyone who puts their mind to it can be our next generation of doctors, lawyers, academics, politicians, dentists, journalists, teachers and scientists – we are being lied to. Our parents’ educational background and behaviours are not considered at all. Our inability to study as much as some others is regarded as our own problem. Financially, parents are burdened, and students are faced with signing up for loans of unthinkable sums of money. How is someone like me supposed to get into Cambridge when my parents barely have GCSEs and I’m made to feel so completely unwelcome by the institution?

Social mobility is not, of course, impossible. Some of us are lucky. But most of the time, I cannot help thinking about the majority who don’t make it – my classmates, my siblings, my best friends, and those who I will never meet but are faced with similar afflictions.

I worry for those who open their curtains every morning and see the same unchanging town in which opportunity no longer exists – a town in which the chances of leaving are slimmer than ever. I worry because I do not trust that we are being thought about enough. I worry that we are being forgotten.

After being rejected from Cambridge, I accepted my offer from another university. After studying there for two years, I took the personal decision to withdraw from my studies and have considered reapplying for university in 2019.

Rife is published by Unbound and available to buy now for £9.99 on Amazon and Watershed.

@livfletcher_