Access and Widening Participation work at St Catharine’s

Oxbridge has been in the news recently regarding the diversity of its student body. We sat down with our Schools Liaison Officer, Jessy Ahluwalia, to hear more about her work and why it matters.

Why do we do outreach work?
Simple answer: there is profound education inequality between students from high-income backgrounds and students from low-income backgrounds. Across the UK, 96% of privately educated children go on to study at university, while only 16% of those in receipt of Free School Meals do so. We want to raise the aspirations of those who may have the academic talent to succeed at Cambridge.

What do we currently do?
Each Cambridge College is part of the Area Links Scheme, which enables us to build effective relationships with schools and colleges across the UK. St Catharine’s is currently linked with Suffolk, Rutland and North Yorkshire, totalling 101 state schools. 
For Suffolk and Rutland schools, students normally spend a day with us – typically involving a talk about Higher Education and the Oxbridge applications process, a tour of the college with one of our current undergraduates, a museum visit or a taster lecture from a fellow, and a debate session using mock interview questions. 

Given the distance from Cambridge to North Yorkshire, our contact is usually focused on week-long trips to the region three times a year.  On these trips, we visit approximately 20 schools in a week alongside student ambassadors.
In addition to targeted visits, the College runs Subject Taster Days followed by the College and University Open Days in July. Both types of event allow students to meet academic fellows, chat to current students and give students a chance to go to taster lectures.  

How do we know that what we do has any impact?
Currently we cross-reference our applicants with those who have visited the college for any event, and I gather feedback from Open Days and school visits through questionnaires and surveys. 
Looking ahead, the University as a whole will be starting to use the Higher Education Activity Tracker (HEAT) system over the next few years to track and record such data. By tracking student engagement in outreach activities, we can then assess the impact of our work and target students more effectively.   

Who else do we work with?
Beyond our target schools, the College also has partnerships with a number of other groups, The Brilliant Club, The Access Project and Shakespeare Schools Festival. The Brilliant Club and The Access Project both mentor students over a number of years in subject specialisms, then provide in-depth help with choosing the right university course for them, while Shakespeare Schools Festival works closely with school teachers, providing them with Continuing Professional Development days based at the University. These projects have allowed us to form closer links with some of our target schools, and branch out to reach schools in London boroughs as well. 

In addition, and as we all know, our current students are by far the best advocates for the College, and they have many new and innovative ideas to encourage applicants. I have been working with the JCR Access Officer and the Black and Minority Ethnic Officer, alongside many of our student ambassadors, for website content, prospective student advice and help with school visits and open days. 

What are the plans for next year?
Following on from this year’s Taster Day success, I have designed two programmes for next year, which focus on mock interviews and subject specific content. I would like to increase our connection with our target schools. 42 of our 101 target schools have either visited the college or been visited by me, so my focus now is on reaching those schools that have not responded to our outreach efforts this year. Most importantly, I plan to continue making outreach work a priority for St Catharine’s, and focus on targeting and engaging those students most affected by educational inequality.

St Catharine’s is committed to supporting access and widening participation work at the College and is actively seeking funding to support these endeavours. If you would like to discuss making a gift to this particular aspect of College life please contact Deborah Loveluck, Director of Development, at or +44 (0)1223 337914.