Higher Education Quarterly

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‘You got into Oxbridge?’ Under‐represented students’ experiences of an elite university in the south of England

Abstract Amid concerns about the skewed socio‐demographic composition of England’s elite universities, this study sought to better understand what undergraduates from under‐represented backgrounds found supportive in the process of them gaining an offer of admission from a prestigious university, and their social and academic experience of higher education. Twelve undergraduates who self‐identified as originating from under‐represented backgrounds participated in semi‐structured interviews. Participants needed to experience explicit validation of their academic capabilities at national level, and of their (localised) social identities, before considering Oxbridge a viable institution for ‘people like them’; in other words, these students engaged in their own form of benchmarking depending on their school setting. On entering higher education, some participants experienced being ‘alienated’ from certain social and academic spaces on the basis that many other students already ‘seemed to know each other’. Findings suggest that the application process to more prestigious universities could be prioritised at earlier stages of education among under‐represented groups, and that widening participation initiatives cannot simply stop at entrance to higher education.

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