Confidence, aspiration, self-belief, and Oxbridge.

Rhea Stevens gives a personal reflection on her time at Oxford.

‘We sometimes have a habit in Wales of talking ourselves down. I will have none of that. The Welsh pupils and students I have met over the course of my study are as bright as any anywhere. Whatever path they choose in life, our job is to equip them to aim for the stars’. These are the words of Paul Murphy, former MP for Torfaen, in his foreword to the Final Report of the Oxbridge Ambassador for Wales, written for the Welsh Government.

Oxbridge Series

This week on Click on Wales we take a look at the Welsh experience of Oxbridge.
You can read the full series here

I couldn’t agree more. The role of education is surely to equip people with the knowledge, skills and confidence to ‘aim for the stars’ and achieve whatever they put their mind to.

Where I take issue with the sometimes myopic focus on Oxbridge is the assumption that the stars to aim for are pre-determined: endorsed by prominent alumni who believe that since Oxbridge did great things for them, it’s a useful measure of success for the generations of students that follow. But that’s only part of the story.

Like Paul Murphy, I attended Oriel College, Oxford. I had much of the support available to me that Murphy identifies in his report as helpful for Welsh students. I attended a Comprehensive school with a strong record of students progressing to Oxbridge; had access to teachers who were Oxbridge alumni; parents who were supportive.  I am acutely aware that without this support, I would not have applied to Oxford.

I am equally aware that not every student in Wales is as fortunate as I was and this must mean that some, for whom Oxbridge is their personal star to aim for, are not getting the support and opportunities they deserve. For these young people, who actively pursue Oxbridge as an informed choice, Paul Murphy’s hard work is immensely important.

I am just not convinced that the debate is informed. Who decides which ambitions are better than others? Are we taking the time to understand the aspirations and choices of our brightest young people, or are we judging what ambition should look like through our own, sometimes nostalgic, lens?

Some of the commonly articulated barriers for Wales’ low application rate to Oxbridge are low self-esteem and a lack of academic self-confidence. From personal experience, I know that both those factors can still be in place even when young people gain a place at Oxbridge. I also know that Oxbridge was not necessarily the best destination for a bright student who lacked confidence. Factors which build resilience such as pastoral care, social networks, the community surrounding a university weren’t part of the conversation when I was applying. If confidence and low-self-esteem are the root of the problem in Wales, shouldn’t these factors count equally if not more?

Looking back, I wonder what choice I would have made had I questioned the accepted truth that if you are bright enough to go to Oxbridge then you have an obligation to try. If I had been more confident in my views, might I have considered whether a different university with a different culture was the right choice for me? Or whether university was even the right choice at that time?  I’ll never know the answer, but I know now it’s a question worth asking and should be part of the conversation.

Aspirations are built from a belief in yourself and the belief of others around you; the two are not mutually exclusive. With that in mind, I am not convinced the popular narrative creates the space for young people to determine their aspirations for themselves.  We cannot on one hand decry young people in Wales for lacking self-esteem or confidence, and then on the other continue to assert that we know best, and that is Oxbridge. Is it true that students in Wales have lower aspirations, or is it possible that the state, both public and political, don’t recognise the choices they make as worthy enough? It is surely possible that at least some of the brightest students in Wales are actively deciding that Oxbridge isn’t right for them.

I could understand if we had the same public fascination with the Russell Group, and celebrated the fact that Cardiff University has an international reputation for excellence. Or if we celebrated and created opportunities for our young entrepreneurs and businesspeople with the same zeal. But these equally valuable choices don’t get the same airtime. There are a number of reasons why this is likely to be the case, but at least one of them must be that Oxbridge has powerful and public international alumni who champion their own choices.

It wasn’t until many years after Oxford that I had the confidence to define my own personal aspirations. My instinct tells me I have gained more confidence and belief in the value of my choices from my time beyond the dreaming spires. I am better able to connect my experiences as a barmaid or as a social work assistant as developing the social skills that have driven some of my proudest achievements to date, than I am my time at Oxford. My degree brought me valuable learning and experiences, certainly, but without my wider experiences and the inspirational people I have met outside Oxford I would not have built the confidence to put that learning into practice.

Confidence, aspiration and self-belief are deeply personal, and everyone’s journey towards them will be different. Oxbridge doesn’t have the monopoly on aspiration – and we should stop pretending that it does. It is part of a whole range of options for able students. If we really want the best for our young people, we have to tell the whole story and let them judge for themselves what is best.

Rhea Stevens is a member of the editorial board for the Welsh agenda. She writes this in a personal capacity.

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