It is very welcome that my institution, the University of Oxford, has committed to an array of access measures aimed at allowing it to recruit 25 per cent of its undergraduates from disadvantaged backgrounds by 2023. It follows much-needed critiques from prominent individuals such as the MP David Lammy, who have laid bare the astounding lack of working-class and ethnic minority students at Oxbridge.
Such students, by the same token, are over-represented in what are often regarded as less prestigious post-1992 universities. That is especially true for students who do not have families or who are estranged from them. Whatever our educational potential and aspiration, people like us can rarely afford to move away from our local areas for higher education because of our need to maintain our social housing accommodation. And even when we somehow manage to do so, I know from my own experience that universities are not even aware that we exist: they assume that every student has a family and a support network to fall back on. We are the people the access conversation forgot. Hence, our particular needs end up not being met.
I was officially abandoned by my mother when I was 17. Prior to that, although I lived with her, I was to all intents and purposes living alone from about the age of 12. To attend a “good” university, I had to commute from my council flat in Essex because I couldn’t afford the rent for both that and a university flat. Initially, I endured a daily six-hour round trip to the University of Southampton. Realising that this was not sustainable, I deferred my place until the following year, hoping I would be able to work and save to stay there. I managed to do that, but I was still obliged to go back to Essex every weekend in order to keep my flat there. This was also stressful. I kept worrying about money and had to work long hours, which eventually affected my studies. Consequently, I did not go back after my first year.
Had I not been determined, I may have given up, like many in my situation do. I took another year out and then enrolled at Brunel University London. While it was closer to my home than Southampton, it was still a four-hour round trip, but I managed to stick at it and graduate.
I also commuted to the London School of Economics for my master’s. Once I had got into Oxford, my plan was to take out loans to cover all my costs, including my social housing flat. However, this did not happen, so I had to crowdfund it instead. Had it not been for the generosity of the public and prominent academics such as Mary Beard and David Olusoga, as well as the film-maker Jon Blair, I would not be at Oxford.
People have remarked that I should give up my flat in Essex. That is easy to say if you have a family and a home, but my flat is all I have: it contains all my belongings. Additionally, if I were to give it up, I would have nowhere to go in the holidays and, more importantly, would be homeless after I graduate. For someone who has been homeless in the past, this is a daunting feeling. I am always worried about ending up back in a situation where I have to stay on various friends’ floors, or else in hostels. Graduates do not always find jobs immediately, and finding somewhere to live without a job is very difficult.
My situation is by no means unique. A friend who is a care leaver told me that their Oxford college had no idea that it was obliged by law to provide year-round accommodation for those without a social housing flat. The care leaver had other issues, too, including financial ones, and it appeared that there was a lack of understanding in the college about what it means for a student not to have any family and to have certain needs that are different from those of the main student body. Not wanting to make a fuss, the care leaver did not ask for any support.
I suggest that if universities really want to widen participation of care leavers, single mothers and estranged students, they should provide them with free accommodation – perhaps in exchange for giving tours to prospective students in the holidays and undertaking other activities to do with access. We should not have to choose between our homes, which provide continuity, safety and a sense of belonging, and the university that offers us the best prospect for our futures.
While I did well in my previous degrees, I would have been able to do even better if I hadn't had to worry constantly about money and accommodation.
Even innocent questions such as “What are you doing in the holidays?” remind people like me of our difference and our difficulties. Universities benefit from the distinct perspective afforded by that difference, and they have a good educational reason to do more to access it.
But they also have a good humanitarian reason to offer people like me more help because it will help us at least occasionally to put our difference to the back of our minds. Throughout my four-university career, I have often kept quiet about my circumstances. They can feel like an embarrassing secret, and sometimes I just want to blend in. Not having to worry so much about money would better allow me to do that.
Roy Celaire is a master’s student in social anthropology at the University of Oxford.
Print headline: Held back by housing
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