To include the excluded: An interview with Baroness Royall

first_imgShe also notes the effectiveness of the college system in improving access, explaining:“It should be an opportunity, as there are well evidenced Oxford wide initiatives – like UNIQ. It enables many different [access initiatives] to be tried, tested, [to] see whether or not they work. It’s very important now that colleges are coming together more to work in a more focussed way in different areas of the country. “As long as colleges cooperate and collaborate when and where necessary, it’s good to have the collegiate system”.Jan’s comments are at odds with some other commentators. Lord Adonis recently called for colleges to be built for disadvantaged students. David Lammy also recommended that the admissions process be centralised. The University remains highly skeptical about both proposals, though we wanted to see if she had given them any thought:“I think it’s interesting to hear other people’s ideas, but I think this is up to Oxford, because we have to determine what is best for the University, and best for our students throughout the country. What worries me is that some people from outside of Oxford think we are wanting to bring about change for PR reasons, and that is not the case. The reasons we at Somerville, and I’m convinced all colleagues in all of the colleges, what to bring about change is because it’s the right thing to do…for the University, and for society as a whole.”Doing the right thing for the university, and for society, was inherent in Jan’s decision to remove octopus from the menu. We approach the subject and the wider question of tradition, and whether that played a role in her decision:“I personally like tradition, and I think it’s great we are rooted in some traditions. The thing about the ridiculous octopus story is its not about dumbing down as some people have suggested, it’s a way of ensuring that when people first come to Somerville they think it’s a place which feels okay, I don’t want students to feel like they can’t be themselves here, they must feel able to be themselves, but I also want them to feel comfortable.    “After day one, let’s have lots and lots of octopus, but on day one, lets have things that people feel comfortable with.” First opened to women in 1879, Somerville can hardly call itself old as Oxford colleges go. It can however boast to be the only remaining college to have hosted all-female principals. Baroness Janet Royall is the latest to join those ranks.Her predecessor, Alice Prochaska, came from a radically different background of historical cookery books and archiving, while Jan’s careers is rooted in Westminster. Chief whip of the House of Lords during the Blair years, she makes no attempt to hide her politics. Not an Oxbridge graduate herself, unlike the majority of principals and deans, she provides a breath of fresh air to the college – though far from a quiet one.   Her latest crusade, removing octopus terrine from the freshers’ welcome dinner, in an attempt to create a more inclusive environment, proved to be a goldmine for the broadsheets. While Giles Coren, Rod Liddle, and the gammon brigade in The Telegraph’s online comments were quick to accuse her of pandering to us snowflakes, the move was well received by students – not to mention the cephalopod community, who have since requested their own JCR officer. Arguably, the worst thing about “Terrinegate” was the way it overshadowed Somerville’s other attempts to become more accessible. The college gave 72.6% of its UK offers to state school students in January, significantly more than the Oxford average. Like many other colleges, it’s also committed to radically increasing access and outreach spending, in response to the admissions report of May last year. “Access [ensures] that young people who got the ability to come to Oxford University, and enjoy everything that is brilliant about Oxford [also] have the ability to do so,” Jan explains:“One of our founding principles was to include the excluded and that ethos continues to this day. We want to include everybody who has the ability to get here.”“We want to ensure we maintain academic standards…just like everyone all over Oxford. But there are many young people who live in disadvantaged areas, and have difficult family backgrounds. Through no fault of their own, they may have never thought about Oxford. But Oxford is for everybody.”All colleges have committed to change since May. However, there is a great difference between promising and creating change. Jan explains that Somerville has committed to participating in UNIQ, along with 22 other colleges this summer, in line with the programme’s expansion. She also refers to Target Oxbridge and Somerville’s own “demystifying day” – which aims to make the University less intimidating to prospective students before their interviews. last_img read more

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