Widening participation in partnership with others

Thursday 11 February 2021

St Catharine’s encourages applications from students with academic potential from all backgrounds by hosting a range of events throughout the year, including open days and subject talks. In parallel, the College organises a programme of sustained engagement as part of our support for the University of Cambridge’s Access and Participation Plan, which targets specific regions or under-represented groups in order to raise aspirations and widen participation in higher education.

Dr David Bainbridge and Dr Ivan Scales, the College’s Admissions Tutors, explain, “St Catharine’s has a track record of successfully engaging with talented students from backgrounds that have traditionally been under-represented in higher education, and we have been fortunate that many of these students have chosen to apply here. For example, over 83% of our 2021 UK offer holders are from state schools (the University-wide admissions target for this group is 69.1% by 2024–2025). The pandemic has forced us to think creatively about how to continue to widen participation and we are delighted to do this in collaboration with new and existing partners.”

Kathryn Singleton, our Schools Liaison Officer, is currently experiencing success by delivering elements of our widening participation programme in collaboration with partner organisations. Read on to find out more about just a few of these partnerships.

Partnering to support the Area Links Scheme

St Catharine’s is linked with schools in three areas (North Yorkshire, Rutland and Suffolk) and two schools in the Cambridge area. This has enabled us to get to know these areas, build relationships with teachers and tailor activities to the needs of each location.

The Area Links Scheme was originally established to enable schools across the UK to build strong, effective relationships with the Cambridge Colleges. Every part of the UK is linked with a Cambridge College, giving the schools in that area a specific contact point, although the scheme does not prevent a teacher or prospective applicant from contacting or being contacted by a College other than their link College.

Kathryn explains, “The pandemic has caused massive challenges for teachers and students, with no formal examinations and disruption to teaching timetables. It has never been so important for St Catharine’s to have close relationships with schools through the Area Links Scheme so that we can provide support in a format and at a time that is going to be most beneficial for them. Ultimately, teachers and students across our link areas know that I’m only an email or a phone call away, should they need guidance on anything Oxbridge-related!”

1. Brasenose College

Brasenose College is linked with North Yorkshire as part of the University of Oxford’s equivalent scheme. To provide a greater breadth of support and to avoid duplication, St Catharine’s and Brasenose are collaborating to deliver two streams of online activities for schools across all of our link areas. Both streams are typically open to students from state schools in the Colleges’ link areas and, if spaces allow, students from other schools who meet the University’s widening participation target criteria:

  • For Year 12: A series of webinars is planned to inform and engage students ahead of the application deadline in October, including an introduction to super-curricular activities, personal statement workshops, and Q&As with our admissions team.
  • For Year 10 and 11: A series of webinars will encourage students to think more seriously about their aspirations, including live academic taster lectures, a subject choice workshop and a support session led by Mary Simuyandi, the College’s Welfare Officer on the transition to Year 12.

In January 2021, as a starting point, both Colleges organised a webinar entitled ‘Introducing Oxbridge’. The session was designed to break down myths about Oxbridge, give advice on the different stages of the application process, and talk about the kinds of things you can start to do to prepare a strong Oxbridge application. Mai Tumber (2018, Veterinary Medicine) was one of the College’s student ambassadors who volunteered to speak as part of the session.

Mai comments, “It was great to see so many students attend the webinar – we were inundated with hundreds of questions, some of which I hadn’t even thought to ask as a Year 12 looking into university, and it was wonderful to get to answer these by either typing or answering live.”

The session was also recorded so that a YouTube video of the event can provide a permanent helpful reference point for any students signing up for later webinars in the series.

Kathryn explains, “With this initial webinar, I wanted to make sure that any UK state school student – no matter what level of support they have from their school – had the opportunity to find out about Oxbridge for themselves. I was thrilled by the high level of interest, with over 700 students joining the webinar live, and by the exceptionally positive feedback on our partnership with Brasenose College.”

An evaluation survey after this first webinar found that 99.7% of students understood the application process (almost double from 56.7% before the webinar), 93.5% believed they would fit in (up from 78.3% before) and 88.7% felt confident about applying (up from 54.5% before). In addition, comments from students included:

“Applying to Oxbridge can feel like an enormous mountain to climb, and it can often feel very distant and cold, so it was great to see some real faces and hear some real stories that make you realise that Oxbridge is both welcoming and an exciting opportunity.”

“I had many misconceptions of Oxbridge about how I expected it to be and about the students studying there. Within the first few minutes that was completely disproved! The atmosphere created by students of the two universities (even through virtual video) was friendly and close-knit. It showed the passion each had for their subject and I really value that as a prospective student.”

2. Lifting Limits

St Catharine’s is also collaborating with the Lifting Limits programme to promote gender equality in primary schools connected to us through the Area Links Scheme. Based on the early success of the Lifting Limits pilot, we hope to address the impact of gendered stereotypes on children's aspirations at an early age and build even stronger connections with local communities.

Partnering to engage students from under-represented backgrounds

1. ClickCambridge

St Catharine’s is proud to be one of a group of Cambridge Colleges working together on ClickCambridge, a pilot scheme that aims to equip around 500 students from under-represented ethnic minority backgrounds with the information and skills needed to apply to selective universities:

  • A Year 10 programme for UK-domiciled Black/mixed Black students.
  • A Year 12 programme for UK-domiciled Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Arab (BPA)/mixed BPA students.

Kathryn Singleton is on the core planning team with counterparts from other Colleges and will oversee a long-term programme of online events addressing various aspects of university applications and the student experience. There will be sessions for parents/guardians as well as potential applicants.

2. The Access Project

The Access Project is an educational charity that supports students from disadvantaged backgrounds to access higher education, through a unique combination of tuition and in-school mentoring. St Catharine’s already has an impressive record of working with the Access Project team over a period of four years to provide memorable in-person activities. In the first few months of 2020 before the pandemic restricted school trips, over 350 students visited the College with the Access Project. Read about how Ali Jassam (2020, Maths) successfully applied after a visit to St Catharine’s with the Access Project.

We are now collaborating to transfer these activities online with three other Oxbridge Colleges: Keble College, Oxford; Magdalen College, Oxford; and Newnham College, Cambridge.  Students, staff and admissions tutors from all four Colleges are working together to deliver an engaging programme of events. Since our students have experienced online supervisions and lectures since March 2020, we are confident that we can replicate mock versions of these experiences for school students to participate in virtually.

3. The Brilliant Club

Our partners at the Brilliant Club aim to widen access to university for students from under-represented groups – many of whom have never met a Cambridge student or graduate. We have always been pleased to organise opportunities for the Brilliant Club to bring groups to experience in person the College environment and meet Catz students.  In a normal year, over 250 students visit the College with the Brilliant Club. We are working together to replicate this experience online, with an introduction to the College and the chance to interact with our students.

Kathryn adds, “While there is something genuinely magical about getting to visit St Catharine’s, feedback from schools shows that our online sessions with the Brilliant Club are still valuable experiences. For the most recent event, I was joined by three undergraduates who were honest and enthusiastic about their own experiences applying to the College and settling in to our community. I’m really looking forward to the next sessions with the Brilliant Club, which will involve schools from across the country.”

4. Universify Education

St Catharine’s is delighted to be the first Cambridge College to partner with Universify Education. This charity aims to empower young people to achieve their full potential in education by enabling Year 10–11 students from non-selective state schools to make informed decisions about their future in education. Look out for further information about this new partnership in the coming months.


Find out more about applying to St Catharine's as an undergraduate.