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Widening participation

An Old Member’s perspective

Annie Tse (1984, Law) practised as a corporate finance lawyer with leading law firms in London and Hong Kong. Since retiring from her legal career, she pursued further studies and was awarded MA degrees in Russian Studies and Comparative Literature by UCL. Annie is a trustee of Univ Old Members’ Trust and a member of the Student Support and Access Committee. She and her husband Terence Tsang (1983, Engineering) were among the first supporters in the realisation of Univ’s Opportunity Programme. She also volunteers with The Access Project, a charity which provides mentoring and tutoring to students from a widening participation background.

What is the role of Univ’s Student Support and Access Committee and what have been your highlights as a member?

The Student Support and Access Committee is part of the Old Members Trust, which offers means-tested bursaries to undergraduate students. Together with financial support available at University level, it is hoped that all students, regardless of background, can make the most of their time at Oxford. The Committee also supports the College in its outreach work. To me, the success of the Opportunity Programme was a breakthrough moment. Other access initiatives include Staircase 12, summer schools and study days – these are often supported by Univ student volunteers. As an Old Member, it is great to see how the College is guided not only by goodwill, but also by its commitment and professional experience to deliver results on access.

How did you first hear about the Opportunity Programme?

Terence and I first heard about what would become the Opportunity Programme from Sir Ivor in 2016 when there were some negative reports in the press on Oxford’s widening participation statistics. The College responded pro-actively and I was impressed by the boldness of the scheme; in particular, the addition of 10% of undergraduate places per year for students from a widening participation background. The idea of a bridging programme also appealed to me. Through my work as a tutor at The Access Project, I can see how a short intensive period of individualised guidance can make a difference for promising students. Terence and I are delighted to support the Opportunity Programme from its inception and see how it has developed over the past few years. The fact that the University has adopted it as a model for Opportunity Oxford speaks for itself.

How did you become involved with The Access Project and what is your role?

I started volunteering with The Access Project partly due to my involvement with the Student Support and Access Committee. I was initially at a loss on what I could contribute as my interaction with young people was rather limited. I felt I could get some experience through volunteering as a tutor for students from a widening participation background. I tutor English, which was my favourite subject in school. In recent years, I am more involved in mentoring law applicants and helping them with admission tests and interviews. I also adjudicate a Year 10 Reading Challenge competition which encourages students to read around their intended university subjects. I enjoy reading the students’ entries and I always give them individual feedback. The best part is making recommendations on what they might enjoy reading next.

What are the challenges of being a volunteer tutor?

Not being trained as a teacher means it takes me a long time preparing for a tutorial. I re-read the texts carefully, reminding myself that my personal (possibly wrong) response should not feature anywhere except in my MA dissertations. The COVID-19 crisis means that I have to enter the brave new world of Zoom. Before the admission test seminar for my students this year, a young person warned me that my credibility would disappear if I struggled like a tech dinosaur. Thankfully I got some practice in an Old Members’ Trust Zoom meeting, where I rendered myself voiceless by pressing an innocent-looking button. It would have been disastrous had I made the same mistake in front of my students.

Are there students from The Access Project you remember particularly well?

Applying to universities in the autumn term can be very stressful. Some of my students who make it to the interview rounds can feel a bit intimidated. I try to help by giving them a mock interview. I always choose a car theft case – hoping that they will focus more on the legal principles if the facts are not too interesting. I was once pleasantly surprised that after being “tormented” for thirty minutes by the distinction between releasing the handbrake and driving the car away, my student’s question for me at the end was still on car theft. I felt his passion for the subject was beyond dispute; he is now reading law at Univ. For many law applicants, the Oxbridge interview is their first opportunity to discuss legal issues with an expert. I always encourage my students to treat the interview as a masterclass – plus a sleepover in a college! There is so much potential for the interview to be a positive and inspiring experience, regardless of the outcome.

What brought you to Univ?

Coming to Univ was nothing short of serendipity. When I came up in 1984, there was no certainty I could finance my studies, not even for the first year. My parents made some exceptional sacrifices, in the belief that Oxford was their best possible gift for me. I also had an amazing teacher at the United World College of the Atlantic – Ian Wilson (1970, History) who encouraged me to apply to Univ. Ian was brought to Univ by his History teacher, also an Old Member; there is a lineage of inspiring teachers in our journeys. Finally, I am indebted to my “fairy godmother” – the tutor (identity unknown) who marked one of my entrance papers. The question was on 19th century authors. I made the fatal mistake that this covered all years beginning with “19” as I launched into Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. I would not have made it to Univ without being given the benefit of the doubt. So many people helped me in my journey to Univ; I also hope I can support others getting into the universities they aspire to.

What do you value most about your undergraduate experience at Univ?

My experience at Univ was so positive that I see learning as a life-long journey. Doctors prescribe at least twenty minutes of exercise each day; the mind probably needs more. I still remember coming out of my tutorials, realising the more I put in, the more I got out. The reverse was also true. The tutorial system is valuable because the student always takes charge of the learning process. In a year when public exams were cancelled and many students felt they did not get proper recognition, I hope the process of learning has been intrinsically valuable for them. This is something which the pandemic cannot take away.

Which aspects of the Univ North development do you find most inspiring?

Much as I rhapsodise over my undergraduate days, academic institutions evolve and grow with time. Whenever I come back to College, I see it changing for the better – the Opportunity Programme is an example. Univ North will provide the College with the foundation to embrace new causes and meet new challenges – some of which we cannot even begin to imagine now. The inter-generational aspect of the design, with a nursery and retirement home on site, will enable the College to reach out to its wider community even more. Terence and I look forward to supporting this project through the Young Univ Matched Giving Scheme. For Old Members like us who left the College such a long time ago, seeing how the young alumni community supports the College always inspires us to play our part.

This feature was adapted from one first published in Issue 12 of The Martlet, Autumn 2020; read the full magazine here.

Published: 23 February 2021

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